Chapter 1: Breathing Easy
He should have thrown it in the fire the second after he’d read it, for it was tainted with the devil’s touch, full of the disease of apathy and legally more than a little on the periphery of ethics. But he was addicted to it now, this odd correspondence that had grown between them, flowering like a mushroom into something thick and plump and sometimes worth having if the occasion afforded it. The paper it was written on was thick and heavy, like the cotton type used for official government documents and could well have been from such a supplier, the ink equally bold and solid, every stroke of every letter made with a confidence that one rarely found in people who were not great leaders. Then, of course, she was a leader of her own mind and increasingly of history itself as she murdered her way through one country after another, a secretive hired gun that left political mayhem in her wake. She had no qualms about her work, claimed she slept well every night and possessed no regrets over any of her actions. This was a source of fascination for Mycroft who, with the slightest perceived notion that he may have offended another in an unknown degree, would toss and turn and bemoan his words or decisions for years, the guilt occupying every thought until he managed to bring the world into karmic equilibrium once again, usually through an unnecessary apology.
The guilt over these letters was insurmountable, however, for he did not wish to stop receiving them and he did not wish for Lestrade to know about them, and it is this that causes that periodic sleepless night full of pacing and the occasional wheeze as stress gets the better of both his soul and his ill lungs. Thankfully, the latter problem has been alleviated thanks to their current time near Bath, the clean country air scrubbing inner organs and even their skin into a polished perfection that no surgery could muster. Every breath he now took was without effort and filled his veins with sparkling molecules of oxygen, giving him a feeling of health and vigor that he couldn’t possibly experience in London with its poisoned Thames and crowded streets, the facades of every house stained black with coal.
He could not give up his cane, however, which was always with him, for those unexpected periods of vertigo would still assail him even here and he would lean heavily on his cane for balance more than true physical support. This morning it was propped against the empty chair next to him, conspicuously absent of Lestrade’s messy bulk, a small trail of crumbs left behind on an empty, flowered plate imported recently from France via his cousin Emigene, who was also absent from the breakfast table, and in fact had never shown up for the repast at all.
He was alone and free to take out the scrap of paper he now had memorized by heart and he took it out from the pocket of his silk dressing gown anew, cup of coffee steaming in anticipation of his rereading of it. The paper, long sueded and the words softened by his handling of it, lay flat before him like a loaded pistol ready to find a target. Possibly a heart.
July 2, 1903
How beautiful Greece is this time of year! So many white sands and miles of blue ocean! The people here are friendly enough, and treat a single French woman alone as an amusement, a novelty. The shopkeeper in town begs of me to date her brother, and he is solid and handsome enough, but sadly a good man, and ah, we both know…I am not the sort who deserves a good man.
I have heard you have escaped to Bath, that place of Romans, and here I am among the Greeks. Quelle coincidence! Ah, alors, I am not so convinced of that either, for we are both brought together by the Fates, are we not? We are both intertwined in a drama that is both beneficial and detrimental to us both and yet we indulge it. You will be my end or I will be yours or perhaps the Fates will simply tire of us both and walk away, leaving us alone. We can hope, yes?
Do watch over your dear Inspecteur for ennui is a terrible disease and can do all sorts of damage to a person’s mind and health, though it sounds as though your wild cousin is making up for it in her own dramatic entrances and exits. Are you free of her yet? I imagine she is the sort who can rarely stay in one place–How I can relate!–and unlike you I am feminine enough to have more empathy for her need to get away and create her own life on her own terms. However, I am in agreement that this wanderlust of hers has little to do with the advancing of science and les etudes anthropologique–To abandon a daughter of that age is an irresponsibility and great damage can be done, as the girl is also as intelligent as her mother, at least on paper from your descriptions. There are a great many dangerous influences that can visit an impressionable girl. Some dangerous but beneficial, perhaps. I have heard whispers of certain meetings, but I can tell you no more than this at present. I am a social scientist of a type myself and do not give out half truths.
As for the assassination of Queen Draga, I am sorry to say that I had little to do with that, and am annoyed that I was not employed by Dimitrejivic, for I can assure you it would have been more subtle. Ah, there is a great disquiet in the world, mon ami, a world of those who are very rich and those who are not and who are increasingly noisy about eating some of that cake. It seems poverty is becoming unacceptable even among the poor. The masses are again recognizing their power. All we can do, for now, is watch. And wait.
How are the medicinal baths and how often do you indulge in them? I hear they are as soothing and healing as the Dead Sea itself, and considering how many sickly Englishmen and women flock to them every summer and put their swill into them I should advise you against such company. I have heard some of the more ignorant believe the Baths can cure syphilis–Quelle horreur!
Best to enjoy the pastoral landscape as you English are so fond of doing at the same time you are destroying it. Breathe in the air filled with flowers and pollen and a simple, clean life! It can end so quickly, that world. And it will, when you must take leave to your Quarter Session in August. I shall be in Sudan when you hear of me next, mon ami, and do not worry, your letter sent to the usual address will find me bien sur.
Tout ma vie, toute ma couer, etre bien
“She is an insufferable brat!”
Mycroft stuffed the letter from Irene Adler into his pocket, heedless of how it wrinkled it. Lestrade hadn’t noticed, and was instead on his usual tirade as of late, a crisp piece of a paper in hand that had the letterhead from the Bathroyal Society of Young Ladies printed in a bold black that seeped through the back of the correspondence. It was tossed in front of Mycroft, who tutted over the now predictable contents. He shook his head and handed the small letter back to Lestrade who paced the large windows of the breakfast room like a caged lion. “It’s rather silly for her to be boarding there anyway, it’s literally a short walk from this estate and frankly, the exercise would do her good.”
“You can’t walk evil out of you.”
“She is not evil, Gregory, she is merely a girl.”
“You haven’t met many sixteen year old girls, have you?”
“East End unfortunates are another matter entirely, Gregory, and you cannot place Ingrid in their company. She is merely a young woman afflicted with an insurmountable amount of intelligence who has had no parental guidance whatsoever in her young, albeit privileged, life.” Sighing once again at Lestrade’s continued fuming pouting as he stared out the large window onto the back of the Holmes estate and its rolling hills, Mycroft picked up his cane and left his seat at the breakfast table to join him. He placed a pale hand on Lestrade’s shoulder and gave it a light squeeze of reassurance. “We shall have a chat with the headmistress later about the issue. Ingrid being too rude to her teachers and being an influence on the younger students has been an ongoing problem and Headmistress Yearwood’s request that she not remain boarding at the school is a fair compromise.”
“Bah!” Lestrade exclaimed. “The girl doesn’t need to learn the finer graces of a bloody boarding school, she needs what we can’t possibly give her and that is a damned mother! What influence can we possibly give her? Your flighty cousin has been here for five years now, her care for the estate minimal and she is simply occupying it as a squatting lodger who hasn’t paid one cent in rent and leaves her child to roam free and wild with no social upbringing whatsoever.”
Mycroft shook his head. “That is unfair, Mrs. Healey has tried…”
“Mrs. Healey is your elderly cook who has had her fill of raising other people’s problems and it is unfair to foist yet another on her in her advanced age! Have some sense, man!”
He tried to protest but Lestrade would have none of it. “Five years we have watched this problem stew, Mycroft. Five long years. Your cousin Emigene is nothing but a world renowned harlot, and I dare you to try and argue otherwise. We have no idea who Ingrid’s father is…”
“I’m assuming someone of the Norwegian nobility as she has travelled to that region often in the past…”
“We have no idea who her father is,” Lestrade repeated. “and as far as we know her mother is the mattress for every noble blooded science minded moron the world over, and it matters nothing to her to have a new fancy man to fund her research every year. Who is it this time? Some fellow in the Highlands with a suitable lab and family stipend? She’s abandoned her daughter and all the problems of her growing into womanhood upon us and not given a damn about the consequences, not the least of which is being prevented from boarding at her school as she’s too bloody miserable to deal with on a twenty-four hour basis. Read between the lines, Mycroft, the Headmistress is tired. She needs a break from Ingrid’s constant challenging and her sour attitude. The girl is work, Mycroft.”
“She is far easier to cope with than Sherlock’s mad shenanigans,” Mycroft primly reminded him. “Or have you forgotten that difficult work as you put it so easily?”
Lestrade was having none of it. “Sherlock is mad. He has a reason for being the way he is and he is being treated quite well for it.”
Mycroft raised a brow. “I shall have to pass along the compliment to Dr. Watson.”
“Perhaps we can throw Ingrid to him in the bargain.”
“We tried, remember? It did not go well.”
Indeed, Ingrid was so adept at debate and well researched on Dr. Watson’s methodology that he found it impossible to diagnose her let alone treat her, and his only advice to the two men was to ‘Handle her carefully and whatever you do, do not turn your back on her for she’s a clever little wench and has nothing wrong with her save the ego and the ability of an angry King set upon conquering. There is little feminine about her, and I would dare say her faerie looks are well deceiving…She holds all arguments like a man and defends as such, and if she were allowed to become a defence lawyer I daresay no one would swing at the gallows.“
“She is family, Gregory. There is nothing I can do about that.” Mycroft tapped the tip of his cane impatiently against the clay tiles of the breakfast room. “And your coat is going on again! Where are you going now?”
“For a walk,” Lestrade snapped.
“You just got back from one!”
“And now I will take another as there is nothing at all else to do in this damned fresh aired paradise! Perhaps I’ll get stung by a bee on the way back, or get challenged by a bleedin’ badger, or trip over a hell’s own hedgehog, the list of potential perils are endless!”
“You are being childish.”
“I am bored, Mycroft. Nothing does my head in more.”
With that he stormed back outside again, his hulking form stumbling over patches of clover, thick dew clinging to his wool trousers and along the hem of his grey trench coat. He was as out of place on the horizon as a tiger sleeping among the patches of moss and Mycroft had to force himself to turn away from the large window and its display of pastoral beauty and ruminate, not for the first time, that surely he was better off selling the Holmes estate and finding some other, more alien clime with bustling life and terror within it fit to keep Lestrade happily distracted solving murders and himself free of bronchitis.
The problem of his cousin Emigene had been an ongoing one since she had moved into the Holmes estate five years ago under the pretence of taking care of how it was run in his absence while he was busy in London. The agreement had been a spoken one, and as she was part of the Holmes family clan on her father’s side, and leaving a vast estate near empty was hardly agreeable to the scant amount of servants or anyone wishing to visit, she had been offered room and board free of charge so long as she presided over it with the expectations one would have for a Holmes. She’d failed at the attempt, miserably, with one scandalous affair after another, a child out of wedlock in tow that she had never disclosed to Mycroft and who sadly was all manner of talk in the local villages surrounding the estate.
But the harsh tongues were soon quelled by Emigene’s harsh, overbearing manner and her intense intelligence which had garnered her a doctorate in the new field of anthropology. She could silence the worst society lady bully with a mere glance, pinning her detractors hard beneath her long nose. She entertained no apology for her lifestyle, nor for the fleeting way she approached motherhood which seemed to involve leaving Ingrid for long periods of time alone on the massive estate with naught but Mrs. Healey and a couple of servants for company and in truth would have forgotten about her own daughter’s education had Mycroft not firmly reminded her of its necessity. “She can read books,” Emigene had said, waving the issue off with the back of a pale, thin hand. “All she will learn in school is how to keep her hand down and hide that she knows the answers. Schooling can’t keep up with a girl like her. Let her be free, take her own path and see where it goes.”
Unfortunately, Mycroft had seen his fair share of what happened to young ladies who followed such advice and they often ended up in his courtroom on charges of prostitution, infanticide, theivery and worse still, afflicted with syphilis or pox, so he had laid down the one law upon his niece that she most certainly must go to school and if her mother didn’t like it she was not welcome to stay at the Holmes estate.
Emigene had found her loophole, however, and the last few years as her own education reaped accolades and she was a well sought after lecturer in France, Hungary and Russia, she spent much of her time abroad, bringing back books and influences that were strange indeed upon young Ingrid. Now sixteen, the girl had grown into a young woman, wild and angry, fluent in Russian and fond of sullen moods and intense arguments. She was still at school this morning, a blessed reprieve that would soon be wrenched from them as she was no longer permitted to board there and thus she would remain for the bulk of her time at the Holmes estate, brooding in windows and bathing the entire place in a grey, sombre pall that matched her permanent foul mood.
His own reflection was broken by the appearance of Sherlock walking across the garden area to the far left of the field, where the greenhouse pavilion was located. He enjoyed spending his time there amongst the various flora and had named many of them and chatted with them as though they were living people, which in his ill mind they probably were. The conversations he’d had with the flowers were predominantly positive, however, and Mycroft saw no harm in allowing Sherlock his happy delusions, rare as they were. Bath had always been a complicated place for him, with memories of their unpleasant childhood invading upon the present, but the gentle calm of the place had been healing and Dr. Watson himself saw no harm in the extended vacation from Holloway, and had promised to visit a week from now to check on Sherlock’s health and to avail himself of free food, room and board at a very prestigious country estate in Bath. His latest book, The Hound of the Baskervilles, had given him ample fame in London and after a slew of further short stories based loosely on Sherlock’s continued nightmarish delusions, he had to wonder if the populace itself were mad to press him so fervently to continue on with them. He had toyed with the idea of killing off his protagonist despite its success for it was wearing on him to be ignored for his more scientific work in exchange for the royalties in the rags his fiction was printed in. That they proved more lucrative made him moan over the state of English education.
Lestrade was no longer visible, sucked into a veil of mist that covered the mossy hills in a thick blanket that was as fresh as cleaned flannel and offered a strangely comforting damp. He’d been heading in the direction of the village, so perhaps he was going to visit the new bakery there. Their cook, Mrs. Healey, told them the old baker had finally retired, as in he died, not by any terrible means, mind, but simply due to old age and older habits. He was fond of drink and it had pickled him into his 87th year before he finally expired, his elbows deep in sourdough and his face plunked in flour. At first the local authorities had thought he’d suffocated in his bin, but his foul liver proved to be the true culprit. Mrs. Healey, oddly unempathetic, had been very happy at the thought of a new baker as she’d found his methods medieval and tasteless, and hated having to resort to his bland pies and grainy textured breads when she herself ran low on supplies for baking. “They don’t make them like that in London, not any more. I know it for a fact, I do. The bread is fine and white and glows like bleached bone. Smells almost floral and not mank, like his. He sold bricks that the poor would shun. Twenty odd years of those rocks we’ve had to put up with. I know it’s uncharitable of me, and I know I will find some punishment for it by the great Spirit, but even He can’t disagree with what’s true. The man made mortar not bread. There’s a young and fresh lad there now, handsome and knows how to work a proper dough, I can tell. We’ll be spoiled now, and you won’t be missing London one whit!”
Why Mrs. Healey thought he would miss London was always a source of question for him, and he imagined the quiet life in the country was heavily prejudiced towards the idea that the bustle and hurry of big cities were where real life happened and not in these mossy areas of quiet, sunshine and friendly walks. He did not miss the filth and misery of London, visible at every turn, half dead urchins and stinking, crowded streets, all manner of peddler selling his wares, pickpockets at the ready to steal every coin. There was no such thing as a ramble in London, for one always had to have a purpose in mind and to get there quickly, do one’s business and then return with equal speed, and repeat this process over and over for the course of one’s career. Lestrade had it far worse, having to dive headfirst into the London muck as he did daily in his investigations, pondering over corpses fished out of the Thames, and not fishing for pickerel as he would here. But while Mycroft enjoyed the respite, Lestrade had a much harder time finding the means to properly relax and it often took a couple of weeks before the man would heave a sigh and stare up at the sharp, cerulean blue of the country sky and properly doze in his chair beneath it, becoming at last one with the scenery. He would gain weight by August, his muscular frame threatening to wither into dough, and then, as September beckoned and Mycroft was to head back to London, he would gleefully jump wholeheartedly back into the mire where he would trawl out murderers and the dead with his usual frenetic glee.
For Mycroft the estate was a mixed blessing. The lingering memories of a childhood spent in tense silence lest he upset their volatile, neglectful father who took the task in name only sometimes assailed him at odd moments, triggered by objects and shadows within the hallways, locked doors that remained so even now when he was an adult. He could see his mother even now, here in the breakfast room, gazing out the window in empty catatonia, encased within a world of her own that no one could penetrate. Down the long corridor past the large, marble encased front foyer, was his father’s study, a large library encasing the walls that opened into a massive window and a set of glass doors that led one directly into the greenhouse pavilion. His father had an odd love for plants, an influence of an uncle, and that relative was long gone before either Mycroft or Sherlock’s arrival. In his own history, the estate had always been mostly empty and threatening to become ruins, but that had not always been the case. There were stories of vast balls being held there, large suppers and dignitaries from all over the world admiring the vast array of exotic plants in the pavillion, rich botanical enthusiasts of all nationality, accompanied by wives and children, the estate a constant revolving door of guests and their bulk, every room often filled, the place like a palace with myriad servants catering to its cleanliness and the care of those beneath its roof. Perhaps his father had enough of such parties and constant company, for he hated the smallest noise to interrupt his time in the study, and would often erupt in rage that would end in a slap across his mother’s face, or a belting on Mycroft’s back. He rarely touched Sherlock for he barely acknowledged the boy’s existence, and besides, it wasn’t long after Sherlock was born that their mother’s illness truly began to grip her, and not even their father’s abuse could reach into the complex tapestry of faeries and monsters that became her inner world.
“Mr. Holmes! Have you finished your breakfast? Tch, look at this, Mr. Lestrade has hardly touched his bacon and there’s only one bite out of that scone. Wasteful! Mind you, the bacon is burned and the scone is not much better. I’ll have a word with that maid of ours, she’s young and stupid and can’t scrub a pot without leaving black in it. Jenny! Jenny get in here and clear up this table! The scandal of it, the way we can’t find decent servants these days.”
A rail thin girl wearing a simple maid’s uniform walked into the room, gave Mycroft a shy curtsey, and then began clearing the table, much to the shock of Mrs. Healey, who gave Mycroft an exasperated look. “You don’t acknowledge the master of the house, girl, you are to come in silent like a mouse, do your work and leave! Oh, Heavens, what am I to do with you! Come on, come on, clear it up, it’s one table and only crumbs, should only take less than a minute!”
Mycroft wanted to protest but had to catch himself for he was not back in London at 221B Baker Street, with its modest lifestyle and no delineation between classes. Mrs. Hudson had often reminded them both that she was no servant, and the freedom that came without them was not lost on either Mycroft nor Lestrade. Here, though the days were lazy and filled with the most incredible blue skies and beauty, the very notion of privacy was frowned upon. What furtive glances and the occasional affection that could be indulged had to be fiercely protected from prying eyes and suspicion, and it was this that sometimes made him long for London’s vile filthy streets and crowded populace. No one cared what one did in London so long as rent was paid. The denser the population, the more it left one alone.
Here, he felt like one of those exotic plants in the pavilion. Always on display and always under fussy scrutiny for aphids.
He supposed he shouldn’t be so uncharitable, for it was Mrs. Healey who had encouraged his education, after all, and was the primary reason he had been able to escape the Holmes estate and his father and all the madness that resided within it. He often wondered if he could have been more of a help to his younger brother who had been left behind and pangs of guilt often assailed him at the thought of the abuses Sherlock must have endured in those cold, never ending halls and gold painted ceilings. Mrs. Healey often assured him that she had kept a close eye on him through the years, but she had her own duties to perform and Mycroft knew as well as anyone that all it took was one second of a misstep and the most vile tragedies could weave into one’s life like a hidden cancer. A horrid slap here. A witnessed argument there. The long, cold nights without comfort, without speech, without human closeness to bring a child out of a nightmare. Loneliness, unbearable and weighty.
How much did Mrs. Healey and her small entourage of maids she had hired know about his relationship with Lestrade? Mr. Healey, the groundskeeper, rarely ever stepped foot into the estate and spent the majority of his life outdoors and then retiring to the small cottage down the lane that had been provided for them. Mycroft wasn’t sure if he’d ever had a conversation with the gruff, silent man who was always covered in a layer of soil If his wife had suspicions, she never voiced them and always treated Lestrade with all the respect of a visiting guest and friend of the family, formal and with that touch of distance that had been so ingrained in her original training for service. They did not share a bed here, but had an adjoining room where the door was left opened. There was little by way of intimacy here, and perhaps this frustration was what was irking Lestrade so deeply, his passions for crime and science were forced into a quiet barely above a whisper, where furtive glances and the odd kiss on the cheek when they were confident no one could witness it had become the norm. The Holmes estate had never been a place of affection, Mycroft had often argued when Lestrade balked at these yearly visits. It was nothing more than a two-dimensional realm of past riches, a ghost of wealth and power. Every soul turned to thin paper within it.
But the grounds were beautiful, and Sherlock did thrive here with its bland outlook and oppressive quiet and overly eager eyes upon it, and certainly Mycroft’s lungs heaved sigh after sigh of relief as the guts of London were coughed in black phlegm out of them, and if it meant their passions had to be put on hold for a couple of months until their return to the frantic life of Baker Street, then so be it.
Light footsteps ran across the marble foyer, and there was some grumbling in the deeper recesses of the estate, and Mycroft paused at the window as he watched Sherlock converse with a daylily. He could hear a massive set of keys jangling and the harsh words of Mrs. Healey as she spoke to her maids, three of them in all, who were now clamouring into the front foyer with quick feet that sounded like the hooves of deer on stone. “Oh, Heavens, what’s this now? We got no warning of this! We’re not prepared! Betsy, get that tea cart ready and you, Jenny, stop looking like a statue and get moving, get one…no, two…rooms at the ready, the guest ones on the second floor. I know damned well they aren’t dusted and have been locked for years, silly girl, so open the windows, change the bedding and get scrubbing! I want a fire at the ready in that hearth! Don’t just stand there, go, go, go!” Mrs. Healey’s fretting was palpable. “Oh dear, dear, they have trunks, four of them in all…No, there’s six! Oh heavens, I hope there’s enough in the larder for all this lot. Two more heads, no servants from the look of it…What vagabonds are these? Those are fine linens, but not made from around here, they look too bleached and light, like cotton. Oh, the easy way they walk! They smack of Americans! Oh, heavens! The Spirit save us!”
Curious, Mycroft left the breakfast room to enter the front foyer adjoining it and was met with a confused disarray of young maids running in all directions, busily opening windows and quickly dusting the vast central staircase before suddenly lining up, with Mrs. Healey, flushed and with a pat of flour on her cheek, her hands clasped primly in front of her. Jenny opened the heavy front door with some difficulty and Mycroft fought the urge to help her (for Mrs. Healey would be scandalized by such charity) and what greeted him was a sight of such surprise he nearly fell over in shock and joy.
“Mary!” HIs eyes widened as he took her in, the soft cotton of her dress far too thin and betraying travel to much warmer climes. “Harriette!” He bundled them both into his spindly arms and he was surprised at the softness of the cotton muslin they wore, no heavily starched lace nor was there the hint of a corset beneath their dresses. He pulled back, red faced, as though he’d discovered some terrible secret, but neither woman seemed to recognize his embarrassment.
“We’ve just returned from Florida,” Harriette demurely explained, her thick, soft brown hair piled high on top of her head and held loosely in place with various precarious pins. Mary sported a far more daring, short look, her hair shorn to the nape of her neck and puffed out in a bowl shaped halo around her elfen features. “I know we should have warned you of our arrival, but Mary felt it would be better to surprise you.”
“And that she has,” Mrs. Healey muttered behind Mycroft.
“We had so many adventures in America!” Mary exclaimed, her dark eyes wide with untold excitements. “We can’t wait to tell you all about them!”
“It’s certainly been a whirlwind,” Harriette replied, with significantly less enthusiasm.
The servant girls under Mrs. Healey’s silent instruction were already loading the various trunks and suitcases up the grand stairs to rest in hastily readied rooms. Mycroft noted there seemed to be a tremendous amount of such belongings, as though Mary and Harriette had uprooted all of their possessions and dropped every bit of them on his doorstep.
“As I wasn’t expecting you, the drawing room won’t be ready for guests, but the breakfast room should do just fine for us--Mrs. Healey! Can you have a tea cart brought in for our esteemed guests? This is Miss Mary Oakes and Miss Harriette Turner, they have just returned from America where they were…”
“...We’re part of a philanthropic society in New York, doing lecture work and expanding upon the virtues of metaphysics. Perhaps you’ve heard of us? The Metaphysical Morass Of The Masses Society?”
“No,” a paling Mrs. Healey nervously replied, “I don’t believe I have.”
“We’ve become quite influential in America,” Mary continued, her chin held high, her cockney accent traded out for a more metropolitan one. Mycroft had to bite down on his smile. You couldn’t keep the actress out of Mary and her current fiction was set to be very entertaining.
“We have been delving into the world of that which cannot be seen with the naked eye and honing in on our scientific expertise upon it. Harriette, here, has become quite the pupil of several mediums within the Chicago district and has been very active in the metaphysical community in her increasing ability to converse with other dimensions.”
Mrs. Healey crossed herself at this. “Well, that’s very interesting, I’m sure. I’ll make my leave now, if you don’t mind, Mr. Holmes, and I will have Betsy bring up your tea with some fresh scones.” Then, after giving the two women a long once over. “And...And how long can we be expecting your guests to stay?”
Mycroft raised a brow at this, and gave his beloved companions a warm smile. “As long as they would like. Please, let’s go into the breakfast room.”
“Where is Inspector Lestrade?” Harriette asked as they walked into the glass encased room, the rolling grey clouds outside laying upon the scene like a comforting blanket. Mary sighed in happiness as she ignored the heavily laid out breakfast table with its various tea cups and sweets and shining cutlery and plopped heavily onto one of the various settees placed along the floor to ceiling windows. A parasol clanged to the floor next to her, and she kicked off her tiny white shoes, revealing cotton stockings that matched her dress to perfection. She tucked her stockinged feet under her muslin skirts and leaned on the windowsill, as perfect a portrait of female dreaming as one could witness.
“I’m right knackered! That train trip is one hell of a bore, nothing but trees and sheep all the way up here. Can’t believe we’re stuck back in Jolly Ol’ England after all that. Here, I knew you was a judge and all, but I never would have thought you’d own a bloody castle!”
“It’s an estate,” Mycroft corrected her. “And it is hardly indicative of wealth as the money is very old that runs it and a good portion of this building isn’t inhabited. It’s been in my family for nearly two hundred years, and I doubt very much it will continue to be for another decade let alone a millenium.”
Mary sighed against the glass, frosting it. “We was set to have a big house. Proper mansion, pool, alligators in the moat, the lot. We did real good in the Americas, didn’t we, Harriette? Got lots of cash built up with the plays and then the lectures and then the whole spirtist thing that Harriette here has got a good head for. I writes the scripts for those, I do, she’s been a right good tutor that way. Sang for our suppers in the rough months. But we had it all, didn’t we, Harriette? Had that house ready to be built and we was going to be Queens of the Marsh.”
Mycroft frowned and Harriette’s voice was stern when she replied to the unspoken question.
“Queens of the Marsh, indeed. We lost it all. Well, not entirely. We are the proud owners of about six acres of swampland that can house nothing but mosquitoes, alligators and flamingos. Building a property on the scale we wanted to is impossible, even a shack would sink into it.”
Mary pished at this. “Oh, don’t be such a bitter bitch about it. Bad investments happen, we’ll get the money back somehow.”
“It’s the ‘somehow’ I worry about.”
“Inspector Lestrade has taken a walk into town, and as for your unfortunate turn you are always both welcome here at any time. As you can see, the estate is mostly empty, so a breath of life within it is hardly a difficulty. Only...The townspeople here are a tad, well, conservative, and there are not as many freedoms to enjoy here as one might have in London. I’m afraid you may find the quiet stifling.”
“This ain’t permanent,” Mary assured him. “We just got to get our heads on right and our feet back on.” She tapped at the glass with a well manicured, perfectly clean fingernail. A feat for someone whose personality was as close to the earth as Mary’s. “You got a witch on your property.”
On the grey horizon, past the arboretum and Sherlock’s conversation with the lilies, a thin, wispy creature roamed the mossy hills. As it approached its long hair whipped across her elfen face which was unsmiling, her steps heavier than her slight body suggested she could stomp. She wore thick black boots suited for gardening or marching to war, and from the way she approached the latter was the better use.
“Ingrid,” Mycroft said, his happy spirit instantly falling. “My cousin’s daughter.”
Chapter 2: Full House
The Holmes-Lestrade clan has gathered together for the summer! But not all is peaceful in the village.
“Florida was the least of our worries, what with its crocs and swamps and insects, not to mention the strange bayou people who lived on those murky waters in their floating shacks. We’d bought the property while we were travelling through Utah, an odd and weirdly insular place, the whole state run by religion and we were flat out run out of it by John F. Smith himself. He weren’t too keen on our play ‘The Missus And The Mister’ about a man what has a mistress and a wife and keeps house for both, get on his moral craw, like.”
“They are currently in crisis over certain aspects of their church,” Harriette further explained. “They have recently banned polygamy within their congregation and the play was considered promoting incorrect beliefs.”
“More than half the population had one father and six mothers. Can’t see how some old geezer could have that kind of energy to keep that up. I’ve met women from the dark continent who said men got made a laughingstock for indulging in that sort of thing, keeping one house is costly enough let alone two or more! America is one strange place, all those wives and yet they was all expected to be sweet and innocent and virginal until the day they died. And have a dozen or more kids besides. Right strange business. Not all bad, though, I liked the whole family is king thing, and the idea of family living forever and all that nice fiction, but then I’m not one to believe in nothing and certainly not from some book what people interpret as they please.” Mary sighed, her breath creating a circle of mist on the glass window. “They was better than the snake charmers. That lot scared the crap out of us.”
“Agreed,” Harriette said, shuddering at the memory. “The Appalachians, while beautiful, have evolved some strange customs, not the least of which is handling rattlesnakes and other poisonous serpents as some interpretation of godliness during their church services. We spent all of half an hour in that tent and I was forced to pass along a furious rattler to an elderly woman who caressed it like a cat.”
“Never thought these heels could get me running so fast.”
“I always wore flat, sensible boots for walking after that. We never knew when we’d have to make a quick escape.” Harriette shook her head. “It wasn’t all tribulation. We had a wonderful time in New York and certainly gained success and fortune in Chicago. I do wish we stayed in that city, it was good to us.”
Mary was oddly silent on that matter, and Mycroft had to wonder what destruction she had wrought that forced their escape from there as well, for he felt there was more to this story than bad investments and soft swampland, useless eal estate which they were now burdened with. He would be patient for they were now his guests and possible lodgers and, more than this, they were family. They could stay at Holmes Manor for as long as they liked.
Ingrid, miserable and sullen despite the adventurers in her midst, naturally had nothing but criticism. “Snakes are boring. They were safe to handle because you were there in winter. They were in hibernation and were therefore sluggish and not prone to biting. As for Utah, I can’t see why you would perform a play on social mores there, especially since music, dancing and drinking tea is forbidden. Hardly a place for a person of English extraction. I suspect it was to drum up publicity, which due to your admitted success, I’m sure you achieved.” Ingrid let out a long, protracted yawn. “The two of you are as innovative and avante garde as a ruler. I wouldn’t pay a shilling for your tired drivel.”
Mycroft bit the inside of his cheek and fought the urge to roll his eyes at his unpleasant second cousin, who was now draped sloppily on a chaise in the far corner, her attention only half on the conversation in the room while the rest was concentrated hard on the Rubiyat of Omar Karihm. Every now and then she’d shake her wild long, tangled brown mane of hair from her eyes and give them all a doleful, tired once over and then descend once again upon the sonnets on the page.
Her rudeness had preceded her, as Mycroft had quickly warned Mary and Harriette upon her approach to the estate, her boots, thick with muck, tracking along Mrs. Healey’s clean marble floor and selfishly leaving filth upon it. She was sixteen years old and far too cynical for her age, her blunt mannerisms heedless of the feelings of others and it was hard to know if she really understood the barbs she left in people. It was a sad sort of existence, for wasn’t her unpleasantness difficult to bear, leaving her lonely and without friends? Harriette, bless her, was patient with Ingrid’s sullen outbursts, but Mary knew well the difference between being outspoken and downright rude and she did not hide her sentiments.
“How’s about we test your theory next time I gets a cobra in my grip? And I have had them so, mesmerized by an Indian fakir who made it wrap around my slight wrist like a bangle and gave my palm a kiss besides. And there was plenty what paid for our ‘drivel’, you little duppy, and we had grand reviews all the way from California to Carnegie Hall! I can’t see how you can be so dull and miserable on that chair of yours and judge the work of others when you haven’t done a thing yourself yet. I won’t tell you what I was doing at your age, it was pure dreadful, and you should have at least an ounce of gratitude towards the life you have here. But I see you got one up on all of us, and you’re keeping it right close to you and being selfish and not letting it out. You got a story to tell, an interesting one, then? Out with it! Or do we have to call on the dead to pry open those thin pale lips of yours before you’ll speak of something more than complaining?”
Ingrid gave Mary a hooded glare. Outside, Sherlock was now dancing among the lilies in the misty grey morning, and Mycroft longed to see Lestrade on the horizon, his arms laden with fresh baked sweets and a hearty smile upon his handsome face. It was a pleasure he was not to have, for Ingrid instantly took up Mary’s challenge, her flat, emotionless voice filling the vast breakfast room like pounded tin.
“My maths teacher becomes two people sometimes. It’s very distracting. We were going over the pythagorean theorum and its application to architecture and she stopped mid lecture, her chalk on the board, and then she became two people nstead of one. I wanted to finish my calculations for the base of the Sistine Chapel and prove that it is off by at least two inches, and then that happened. The girl sitting beside me screamed causing me to break my pencil and another in the back of the classroom fainted. Most tiresome.”
Everyone’s cups of tea was poised frozen at their chins, and it was Harriette who broke the odd silence that ensued. “Ingrid, whatever do you mean she becomes two people?”
Mary snorted at this. “Obviously the imp means she’s right cleaved in two. Her shadow must be the better teacher, then! Ha!”
“That’s exactly what I mean,” Ingrid replied. She combed her fingers through her impossibly long hair, a vain attempt to disentangle her thick locks. The girl had to learn how to properly use a comb. “Though it isn’t a shadow, it seems solid enough. She stands there, in twin form, at the front of the classroom, attempting to teach. Only the original of her remains in a kind of fugue and the other is speaking but we can’t hear her, the chalk making no mark at all on the board.”
“I don’t understand.” Harriette carefully placed her teacup back on its saucer. “How can there be two of her? And this ghost of her, it just appears out of nowhere?”
“There’s no real warning.” Ingrid shrugged, her copy of The Rubiyat now careless in her lap and partially hidden beneath the dark folds of her wool skirt. “She just...Splits. One is more substantial than the other, at least more animated, and then the leftover is...Empty.”
“You are surely making this up, Ingrid!” Mycroft admonished her. “You should not be filling up your head with such lies! Mary, Harriette, I am so very sorry, this is but another instance of her strange insolence...”
“I’m not lying!”
The front door slammed open and shut and Sherlock marched into the breakfast room and made a beeline for Ingrid, a fistful of Mr. Healey’s prized tiger lilies in his grip. He tossed them into the young woman’s lap and she accepted them with an exaggerated grace. “I have heard you all talk of ghosts.” Sherlock beheaded one of the lilies and twirled it with his long, pale fingers. “There are plenty of those here. A ghost of oneself is something very dark indeed, my dear, it absorbs all the rot, you see, and then vomits it out when it gets too full.”
“There are no ghosts, Sherlock, Ingrid is being rude and trying to upstage the adventurous tales of our guests and nothing more.”
“I am telling the truth!”
“Really, Ingrid, this is enough!”
“You are always accusing me of starting drama!”
“And you are presently not?”
Mary cleared her throat and all eyes were suddenly sharp on her, including Harrette’s. Her gaze was pensive as she sat on the settee, her dark eyes downcast upon the marble floor, tracing the veins within it. She did not look up as she spoke.
“I believe her.”
Mycroft threw up his hands. “You are not helping! Ingrid is notorious for this nonsense!”
“I do believe her,” Mary insisted. She stood up and walked to Ingrid, taking the small book she had been reading from her lap. Her cockney accent was significantly diminished and Mycroft wondered if she’d attended elocution lessons in Chicago. “You got a thoughtful way about you, despite what they say. I know how hard it is to be a blunt bitch in a polished peacock’s world. I don’t think lying is your thing, I’m not even sure you know how to do it. Your honesty is what gets you into trouble most, and you are being so now. If you tell me your teacher spontaneously cleaves in two in front of everyone, then I trust every word.”
Mycroft longed to protest but the conversation was cut short by a frantic jangling of the front doorbell, fit to break it. Sherlock collapsed onto the chair beside his brother, the lily in deep concentration as he twirled it in his hands, fast enough to make the small black dots on its surface blur into lines upon the thick orange petals.
“Mighty heavens, what devil is it now?” Mrs. Healey’s rotund form rolled into view before Mycroft could answer the front door himself, her face a furious blush of pink crimson making her look like a bloated cherry. She flung the front door open in a hurry and stepped away from it, all semblance of propriety gone. “I have reminded you before, Mister Lestrade, to use the side entrance when you are returning from your daily walks, it is meant for the comings and goings of those who reside within the estate, and that includes the Holmes inheritors. This door is for formal entrances of guests with luggage only! Oh! Oh Heavens!"
Her hand went to her mouth, her little pink lips caged within her shocked surprise which quickly gave way to an uncharacteristic happy whoop and grin. She practically pushed Mycroft aside as she embraced young Jack, his tall, strong frame dwarfing her, though it didn’t save him from her squeezing. “Is it some holiday I’ve not heard of? This is a treat for this old lady, this is, oh to have you home is such a wonder! What of school? You aren’t playing truant are you?”
“No, Mrs. Healey, my semester ended yesterday.”
“In biology and chemistry, yes, though I am a little concerned about my languages…”
“Pish, when will you be speaking German? I told you not to waste your efforts on that, not when you’re set to be a proper English gentleman.” She snatched his small leather satchel from his hand and refused to let him take it himself. “Your room is as you left it last summer. Neat as a pin, and a full bookcase. Betsy put your pickles in the cupboard above your bed as they were upsetting her sleep.”
“Thank Betsy for that from me, it’s better they remain out of the sunlight.”
"Don't know when you'll be needing pickled hearts and that severed lung gives everyone a turn who sees it. The tongue has gone grey, but the lips haven't. Vile bottles, I'll never understand the fascination..."
"They are for studying biology, Mrs. Healey, they are not parlor trinkets."
"So say you. You aren't here when Mr. Lestrade makes it his mischief to scare the girls with them, putting them in the kitchen and giving the maids a right fright when they go to get the jam preserves" When Mrs. Healey finally released him, it was Mycroft’s turn to grab his shoulders and give him an embrace that resembled the ones he used to receive as a small child, but the bulk that was beneath his arms was had spread already into manhood and Mycroft had to stretch to reach around him. When he broke free, he wiped the beginnings of tears from his eyes, earning a sigh and an eye-roll from Jack.
“Every time I come to Bath you weep as though I’ve been missing for decades.”
“You’ve been away at your studies for the majority of the year,” Mycroft reminded him. “221B is remiss without your presence and though we have been in regular correspondence it is not the same as seeing you in the flesh.” Mycroft held his fist to his mouth, holding in his emotion. “And how you have changed with the seasons! Gone is the spindly youth we sent to the Gentlemen’s Honours Academy, and in his place is the beginnings of a young man. To think you are only fifteen when you could easily already pass for a man in his early twenties!”
“I blame the rugby matches. Plus the fact I am not fifteen but turning sixteen in a week.” He began his ascent, his bag in hand, and paused on the grand staircase leading up to the rooms. “Where is Inspector Lestrade?”
“Gregory is in town, hunting pastries from the new baker. Do you need help with your bags?”
Jack gave him a winning smile, his handsome face clean shaven, his hair cut Oxford short, his muscles well defined and his shoulders broad as any athlete. He held up his small satchel that looked suspiciously like a doctor’s case. “I just have the one, and I’m sure I can manage it. What I could really use is a proper cuppa, the offerings on the train were dreadful.”
“I’ll make sure there’s extra sugar for your tea!” Mrs. Healey shouted up at him from somewhere in the depths of the estate. How she had overheard him, Mycroft didn’t know.
Jack cheerfully nodded and Mycroft watched him ascend, his good humour suddenly marred by the slight limp as Jack navigated the stairs, barely perceptible to others, but obvious to Mycroft. As a child he had once nearly been murdered by a man posing as a chimney sweep and he was illegally hired as a climbing boy. The man had pushed him into the chimney and Jack nearly suffocated. Luckily, if one could say so, he only sustained a severe leg fracture and managed to avoid amputation. Thanks to Mrs. Hudson’s expertise with setting limbs it had healed almost perfectly, but still...When he watched him climb large sets of stairs or when he was physically tired, Mycroft noted the slight limp, and the near imperceptible way his foot would turn to afford his tired legs better balance. He was still athletic and very strong, but the threat of arthritis in later life was ever present.
So much the better, then, that he should aspire to become a man of the robe, and in Mycroft’s view, it was best if he turned his studying efforts away from the more science oriented subjects and began his concentration in law. No longer were judges of the Assize courts merely appointed to their posts with little experience other than possessing a pen and paper, law had become far more complex in the last decade and significantly more efficient and professional. Trials were no longer mere shouting matches and the magistrates had to pass strict examinations in order to fulfill their duties. The very process of the law had also changed, and now, in 1903, the Poor Prisoner’s Defence Act which Mycroft himself presided over as it came into use that spring, ensured that poverty stricken prisoners were appointed competent legal aid. There was much to be done, and an intelligence as Jack possessed would be welcome in any English criminal court.
Of course, Gregory had his own designs upon the lad and was aiming for Jack to put his athletic prowess into use in law enforcement, specifically as an Inspector like himself and to continue onwards in the Lestrade family tradition. As far as Mycroft was concerned this seemed a waste of ambition, regardless of the intricacies of Gregory’s profession, for he knew well how much of a toll the murders and depravity played upon Gregory’s peace of mind and he was loathe to visit that upon their adopted son.
“Is there someone else here?”
Laughter tinkled through the main foyer from the breakfast room and Jack craned his neck to get a better view. He descended a couple of stairs as female voices echoed in the vast space.
“Our dear friends Mary Oakes and Harriette Turner are here, they needed respite from their adventures in America. Go upstairs and freshen up and when you return they will be ready to receive you properly…”
“Is Ingrid with them?”
Mycroft hesitated, for this odd fascination the lad had for Ingrid was unhealthy at best and as they were now approaching the age of romantic interest and would be looking for affections that had to be wholeheartedly discouraged. They were close in that strange, adversarial way that made Mycroft uneasy. He left the question hanging and shooed Jack up to his room to wash the smell of horses and the sweat of other train passengers from him.
Mycroft had so far managed to keep Jack’s rather romantic curiosity over his second cousin from Lestrade but he feared with so many people and distractions within the house he would not be able to keep the boy’s focus and thus that harpy could get her hooks in him. She was not an evil girl, he had to remind himself, but she was her mother’s daughter and held a good deal of that selfish whim within her. For whatever reason, all she said he hung onto every word and this latest tale she spun about her maths teacher splitting in two would be just the thing Jack would love to obsess over, to the point he would want a full examination of the scene and of the maths teacher herself, to contradict and puzzle over her predicament and, in some way, affect a cure. He was a good lad, but as always he had an air of positive martyr about him and Mycroft was on high alert to prevent him from destroying his future via Ingrid’s weird influence.
He ushered Jack upstairs and did not let him leave his sight until he was well down the large hallway, his whistling echoing down the empty space. An entire wing of the house, usually empty, would be in use now, and the estate seemed to sigh in pleasure over the thought, its bulk longing for company and the merriment that had once filled its halls over a hundred years ago.
He checked his pocketwatch, noting that it was now late morning and he had accomplished very little by way of actual work, his notes for his upcoming cases at the Assize courts in Wales neglected for the past couple of weeks as they settled in for the summer. It was unlikely he was to get to any of them, for he was fully intent on drinking ample wine and having far too much merriment with Mary and Harriette throughout the small hours of the evening, a fact that would explode tenfold once Lestrade returned home. Odd that he wasn’t back yet, for surely there was nothing in town that held that much thrall, French patisseries notwithstanding.
He eyed the large oak door at the front of the estate, its carved heaviness a boding alarm to all who dwelt within that this castle could be conquered and not with swords and blood but amicable company and bottled spirits. He half wondered who else might decide to knock upon it, and as he watched it inch open ever so silently he held his breath, his eyes opened wide at the intrusion, the cat like figure behind it set to pounce and dig her sharp intellect into him, pinning him and all he held dear to the marble floor. Could it be her? The threat of her was always with him. It must be, that hand is pale and delicate, and she has no wish for his comfort or happiness, no wish at all for she is here to slice their throats and leave them bleeding out upon the polished marble, leaving such a mess for Mrs. Healey if she hasn’t been done in already…And she will apologize, but politics, mon chere, their deaths for the greater virtue of whoever paid her...
“I saw Mr. Pinter unloading the coach out back. Is it true? Are they here?”
Mycroft’s head snapped up from his bloodied reverie and instead of a delicate pale hand he saw Lestrade’s strong, browned by the sun palm reaching towards him. He looked quickly around him to ensure there were no servants to see him and he snatched Lestrade’s hand, holding it close against his heart.
“What’s wrong with you? Your heart is beating so fast I half think it’s about to jump out of your chest.”
“We have several guests, yes, and Mary and Harriette are two of them.” Mycroft kept his grip on Lestrade’s hand, for he had forgotten how much he longed for the man’s touch and simple embrace, this cloistered closeness they had to suffer unbearable. He swallowed back emotion. “Jack is here.”
“Is he?” Lestrade’s concerned expression instantly gave way to joy. “That’s the best news I’ve got since our arrival! How have his studies gone on, did he do well on his exams?”
“He seems to think so, though he’s worried about his German…”
“Pish, the Germans! He won’t be needing that, and I half wonder why he bothered to study it, it serves no purpose in policing.”
“He has aspirations of travel,” Mycroft reminded him.
“He’ll travel enough on the streets of London, if he wants to truly expand his knowledge of humanity he’ll have to go farther than the Rhineland. The dark continent wouldn’t be so bad an idea, as long as he keeps himself free of the malaria and dysentery. He’ll learn far more useful things there than the proper verb forms and capitalizations of a language that holds him no future benefit to his career.”
Gregory’s lackadaisical approach to Jack’s studies irked Mycroft but he was in too good a mood at present to argue with him over it. He followed Gregory back into the breakfast room where the three women within it were now hunched in a secretive meeting at the table Mycroft had vacated, the cups of tea ignored and the murky contents now sporting a thin film that marred the perfection of the flowered porcelain they were poured into. “I’ve seen many strange occurrences,” Harriette was saying, her expression pensive as she brought Ingrid deep into her confidence. “During my education in Chicago I had many such experiences that have left me both perplexed and questioning of all I hold to be true of this physical life. For how is it a photograph can capture a spirit, its essence bleeding out into a smoky ether that only the paper it is printed upon can see? Ectoplasm, as I recall. A papery, otherworldly substance and one that I have handled with my fingertips myself, one as fine as onion skin but oddly dry and brittle.”
“That’s similar to what I’ve experienced,” Ingrid said. Her hair was loose and hiding the side of her face, her large, dark, limpid eyes taking on a mysterious sheen that Mycroft could almost interpret as actual interest in the subject they were discussing. Mycroft softened looking upon her for though she was challenging she was still but a girl and there were moments such as these when he still saw the child within her, the wondrous curiosity still pouring from her soul regardless of how hardened her outer shell hid it. She did not have any easy life with such a neglectful mother as his cousin Emigene, and he was certain she was the subject of gossip at the boarding school which no doubt resulted in sharp barbs constantly directed against her. It was difficult to be the child of an ‘eccentric’, though he was sure harsher words were used in the descriptions of Emigene Holmes.
But here she had already found some unique friends and while he was pleased that the introduction had proved fruitful and perhaps, as miracles are reported to happen on occasion, Mary and Harriette would prove to be a good influence on the young woman and inject that motherly instinct so lacking in her upbringing.
The pleasant moment was marred by Lestrade’s entry into the room, his booming voice near shattering the gloomy glass that overtook the breakfast room. “I can’t bloody well believe my eyes, for here are two ghosts in my house, ones what I never thought I’d see conjured up again! What has it been, two, or is it three, years? You’re bloody monstrous creatures, that’s what you are, staying away for so long! What are you sitting there grinning like fools for when I’m standing here wanting for a hug!”
The two women obliged and it was a touching sight to have all of his family back again, for Jack entered the room as well, flushed and thrilled to see his favourite adopted aunts reaching out for him and fussing over his sweater that Mrs. Hudson had one of the elderly women on their block knit for him, and mussing his hair and commenting on how he’d grown. Mary raised a brow and gave him a fine curtsey. “To the manor, born, dear sir. You’re looking more a gentleman every day.”
“He doesn’t merely look the part, Mary, he most certainly *is* a gentleman.”
“Harriette doesn’t have the experienced eye that I do, Young Jack, you’re not ripe yet. Still got some scallywag in you to shake out first.”
Blushing, Jack laughed that last comment off and caught the eye of Ingrid who was still seated at the table, the cups of cold tea a close resemblance of her mood. “Hello, Ingrid. It’s...It’s been a while since I saw you last…”
“Last summer,” Ingrid mumbled, and yawned.
“Yes. I did write to you, did you get my letters?”
“I never did get any back from you. You must have been busy at school.”
“School is boring. I always get my work done before everyone else. They keep trying to force us to read Bleak House as a contemporary example of social reconstruction. Dickens is boring.” She worried a crumb from a biscuit with her fingernail. “Are you here for the summer?”
“Yes, we can spend a lot of time together, catch up properly.”
He was far more enthused at this prospect than Ingrid was, and though Jack didn’t notice Mycroft certainly did. The two older women were still draped on his arms, and sensing the uncomfortable exchange wisely steered him out of the breakfast room and towards the study across the main foyer and begged of him to tell them all about his adventures in school. “Hardly anything worth mentioning. I’m surrounded by books all day and on the weekends I help Mrs. Hudson around the house at 221B, especially since she’s become so busy. It’s an old place and can be a challenge to upkeep.”
Harriette held a hand to her heart and sighed. “I do miss Mrs. Hudson. I think we would have avoided more than half the trouble we found in America if she had been with us.”
“She’d give old Teddy a few pointers. I half wonder if we should bring her when we start travelling again.”
Harriette sighed, suddenly downcast at this idea. “Mary, we have only just finally put up our feet on familiar soil. I can’t bear to leave it so soon, I need to rest and get myself back.”
A strange darkness came over Mary’s features at this as she looked upon Harriette and, alarmed, Mycroft watched as that flicker of worry disappeared as quickly as a drop of rain upon the earth. “Well, then, we’ll put some roots in, if that’s allowed. We can always open up something here, we’ve got plenty of prospects.”
Harriette dabbed at her eyes with her fingertips. She had been on the verge of tears. “Yes, an excellent prospect. Inspector Lestrade, I hear you are longing for London?”
“Not now that there’s plenty of good company I”m not!
“And what have I been all this time? Really, Gregory, it’s unkind of you to lump me in with your attack of ennui. I am deeply hurt.”
“Get over it, Mycroft, I see you every bloody morning, noon and night and it’s hardly the same thing. We come to Bath and sit in it, and though it’s definitely the best medicine for your poor lungs I can’t say the same for your middle, which is becoming a tad wider and spongier than when we first arrived. Speaking of…” He brandished the small wrapped box in his hand and brought it to the table where Ingrid was now resting her cheek, the neglected cups of tea pushed aside. “There’s a new bakery in town--Ingrid, move your hair, we don’t need any of your locks in the pastry--the chocolate beignets are to die for!”
He carefully unwrapped and opened the box, revealing a delicious set of pastries that any french patisserie would be envious of. The smell of rich chocolate met their senses, along with hints of orange and toasted almond. They were beautifully prepared, Mycroft had to admit, with a dusting of fine sugar that was as decadent as the size of each pastry, which was dwarfed in Lestrade’s hand as he snatched one up. “Cross Ants I think the baker called them. Interesting fellow, and already quite popular with the young women in town, there were a whole group of them in there this morning. He makes excellent coffee as well.”
“This is not a croissant, Gregory, this is a pain au chocolat. And get a plate, you are not on some East End corner wolfing down a soggy lunch over a crime scene, you are in civilized company and should act as such!” Mycroft clattered a small flowered plate in front of Lestrade and Lestrade, debating if he should take a bite anyway, decided better of it and set the pastry down on the plate, a heavy snow of sugar following it. “You really do act like a lumbering ape sometimes!”
“Perhaps. As you have a habit of being a hovering, nervous mother.”
He was smirking as he said this, and was dangerously close to Mycroft now, his shoulder pressed against his own, the proximity of his breath sweet with tasted baked goods and fine coffee. His lips were moist and pursed as Mycroft inspected the offering, but it was not the pain au chocolat that Mycroft longed for. He hadn’t realized how hungry his body had been for Lestrade’s touch, and he instinctively leaned back into it, in more intimate a way than he had allowed himself since their arrival. Sensing the slip in propriety, Lestrade moved to one side, leaving a cold ache where his body had been.
In moments like this Mycroft would have preferred struggling to breathe rather than be forced to ostracize his affection. He poked at the pastry, his appetite suddenly quashed.
“There was a murder.”
The awkward moment was further exacerbated by this, and Mycroft blinked at Ingrid, who now had her eyes closed, her cheek on the table, taking what looked to be a morning nap.
“What did you say, Ingrid?”
She opened a sleepy eye and fixed it on Lestrade. “There was a murder this morning. I heard the mayor talking about it outside the post office. He’s all upset and red in the face about it, said something about needing an Inspector.” She yawned. “He saw me and said for you to go 45 Cherrypit Lane as soon as possible. He’s got that one policeman on the scene, that one with the manky hair and crooked eye and no one else.”
“And you only tell me this now?” Lestrade shouted. “I’ve just come back from town and here I was talking all this time and you leave something that important to tell me in passing? Have some sense, Ingrid!”
“I’ve told you.” She yawned.
“Did he give you any details? What has happened?”
“I don’t know. There was a woman crying, and there were people out on the street. It had nothing to do with me, so I didn’t bother with it.”
“Ingrid, that’s quite an omission,” Harriette said, her skirts clutched in her fists at her sides as she approached the sullen girl. “We’ve been here over an hour and you’ve never mentioned it once. Surely such an event as a murder is rare enough in that tiny village that it would stick in your mind.” Her expression was one of concern rather than pique. “This darkens your experience with that Russian teacher all the more. You truly are disturbed by it if it has stuck in your mind to this degree that you speak of it so freely.”
Not knowing what she was talking about, Lestrade was instantly wound up by Ingrid’s continued apathy. “We’ll talk about this later when I get back. There’s the matter of your headmistress’s note as well, and you are to explain yourself.”
Ingrid shrugged. “Nothing to explain. They hate me there.”
“No one hates you, Ingrid,” Mycroft said.
She gave Lestrade’s heated glare a good once over. “How good for you to be so sure.”
Lestrade ignored her barb and marched out of the breakfast room, leaving his guests and Mycroft behind. Sherlock had long disappeared from the breakfast room and was probably back in the arboretum having a long discussion with the dahlias. Jack eagerly reached for a pastry only to meet a very angry and agitated Lestrade who gave him a curt nod and closed the lid of the pastry box over his fingers. “We’ve got work to do, my lad. Get your coat and bid Mr. Pinter to take us into town. Best you get yourself prepared for what you’ll be seeing in your future and toughen any soft edges you might have.”
Jack, surprisingly, did not hesitate. “I’m more than happy to inspect the body under your tutelage,” he said, grinning. Then, more serious. “Though perhaps happiness isn’t the right descripiton. Eager, then. I am eager to learn.”
“You’re getting influenced by Inspector Harding, I see. He never met a corpse he didn’t like. Is he still spending all his free time at the morgue in St. Bart’s, drinking cordial with Doctor Zieglar into the wee hours, slabs of the dead between them?”
“It’s the only place you can find him when he isn’t at the Yard.”
“I’m hardly surprised.” Lestrade grabbed his long wool coat and his bowler hat while Jack held the heavy front door open for both of them. Word had already got out somehow, from some invisible servant, and Mr. Pinter and his coach were already waiting. “This place is made of eyes,” Lestrade muttered. He gave Mycroft a wave over his shoulder, and the smallest glance of longing before leaving with Jack.
Chapter 3: Ghosts And Education
Just a note that this novel is considered an original work, and is fully protected under Canadian copyright law. (c) copyright, 2021, M. Jones.
The characters in Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle are now in the public domain (Yaaay!!).
Now left on their own for the remainder of the day, Harriette and Mary, still too energetic from their long trip on the train into Bath, insisted upon a full tour of the Holmes estate. It was a distracting kindness, for murder was one thing Mycroft longed to stay away from when he was here in his private castle, and its occurence had now rudely interrupted his albeit uneasy sense of peace.
Sherlock was their guide in the arboretum, a glass and iron structure built by their grandfather and expanded upon by their father, who fancied himself a botanist but did little to provide the care required to keep the exotic plants within its glass cage healthy. That was the job of Mr. Healey, who was presently trimming a small collection of trumpet vines in an effort to encourage more flower growth. Sherlock had taken Harriette in hand and was busy fussing over the dahlias, their round shapes fat and fragrant and in a wide variety of colours while Mary concentrated on the cacti, a variety known as hens and chicks taking her full concentration as she marvelled how the plant grew in between and upon rocks.
Ingrid was slouched in a nearby chair, staring morosely at an orange tree that was finally bearing fruit. She plucked one of the small spheres and began to pick at the peel, which was overly thick and bore only a small cherry of the actual edible portion of the fruit within it. Mr. Healey shook his head at her.
“They need to grow more before you can pick them. Nothing but seeds and rind right now and they need more sunlight or else they’ll stay stunted. The ones from Florida are something magical, they are so heavy with fruit you can drink its sugar from the centre.”
Mary’s head popped up in interest at this and she used her best elocution voice to reply to him. “I concur. Harriette and I have been to that part of the world and yes, the oranges are spectacular. Sweet and perfectly tart as well, no fancy pastry in the world can rival how good they are.”
Mr. Healey nodded. “Nothing but dried up rinds here, and when we do get them they're wicked dear. Mr. Holmes likes to have them on hand and they dip into Mrs. Healey’s budget more than she likes. But we’re all lovers of them, and Mr. Holmes is generous in handing them out to the servants. Much to my wife’s consternation.” He clipped a branch thick with dark leaves and tossed it to one side onto the ceramic mosaic that decorated the floor. “Lemons and oranges alike keep away the scurvy, so they say on the seas. I just like them because they are sweet, and I like the way they put the backs of my teeth on edge when I bites into them.” He clipped another branch, and Mycroft had to wonder at the man’s sudden need for chatter for he could count all of twice in his lifetime that he’d ever heard the man speak. But then, no women such as Harriette with her calm and pleasant demeanor and genuine kindness and Mary’s eager, wide eyed curiosity had graced the innards of Holmes manor in all its years of existence, so perhaps this injection had loosened his tongue. He marvelled at how Mr. Healey answered all of their questions about the plants, his passion and knowledge far greater than Mycroft had ever given him credit for.
Mr. Healey tossed the clippers onto the dirt at the base of the trumpet vine and wiped his meaty, permanently mud caked hands on his equally permanently dirty wool trousers. He pointed to a collection of poinsettias that had been imported from Malaysia long before Mycroft was born. “Those are my pride and joy. See how deep red they are? They aren’t like that in the tropics, they have a brighter shade to them, but I think it’s on account they don’t get as much sunlight here as there. That big fiery orb is my bane most days, those stubborn clouds don’t do much for my gardening because the heat and the rays are what the petals crave. The white ones there, they keep trying to push my red beauties out and they aren’t half as strong or give as big a flower.”
“I’m rather fond of your herbs,” Harriette said, her delicate fingers caressing a flowering piston of lavender. “The heady smell of them is so cleansing. What’s this one, here?”
She gestured at a small clump of round bulbs of varying size that were in place of flowers with tiny green shoots escaping from some of them like thin grass. Mr. Healey gave her a crooked smile at her inspection, and wiped a grubby hand across his chin, leaving a dark smear of topsoil. “Allium cepa. Tree onion. Some people call them walking onions. They can be used in cooking just like a regular onion, and have a sweeter flavour my wife says.”
“On account of how far they can travel as they grow in height and then the weight of the bulb drops the plant. See over there, near the window on the other side of this little path? There’s a bunch of them growing there, too, and you can see how it’s ‘walked’ its way there, the tangles of the stalk leading the way.”
Harriette inspected them further, the tiny bulbs caressed with her thumb. Perhaps she had a certain kinship with them, Mycroft thought, for wasn’t this the pattern of their adventures, the small journeys turning into ever larger ones until they were so far from their starting point it seemed impossible to go back? But all they had to do was trace back through the tangles of stalks that were laid out like a clear path, and all roads were well mapped. He couldn’t help but smile at the thought. He was glad they were home.
“Our father was interested in buying plants,” Sherlock said. He was seated amongst the dahlias, his chin propped in his palm, a small maple leaf dangling between his fingers. “He didn’t care for them. He ignored them until they withered and died, much the way he treated our mother. Isn’t that right, Mycroft?”
Surprised at this rare lucidity, Mycroft gave Sherlock a curt nod of agreement. “He was a hard man.”
“I barely knew him,” Sherlock said. He shrugged. “He sat in his study just off from this arboretum and pretended to read. He did that for hours. Day after day after day. Sometimes a new plant would appear, and Mr. Healey would be its carer. Our father cared about nothing. He was an empty, hollow man, I think. Mother was the one who loved us, when the fairies weren’t pestering her.” He sighed and glanced around the arboretum. “They are here but they aren’t as noisy when I’m sitting with the dahlias. They are good protectors. The monsters are further along in the hills, and I avoid visiting them. Mother has been adamant I don’t stray too far, for there is a river near there that has a mouth and it begs for my soul.”
Ingrid cast him a hooded glance. “Come sit with me a while, Sherlock. We can view the monsters together and be safe knowing they won’t leave the water.”
“Oh? Why is that?”
“Because they have to use pebbles for currency to get out, and there are too few of them for the steep price the fairies charge. You should eat that pastry in your hand, the butter you lathered it with is starting to melt.”
As though just remembering it, Sherlock took a ragged bite of the croissant and then sat with Ingrid at the table on the far end of the arboretum. They were quickly engrossed in a cryptic conversation, one that Ingrid pressed on with a great degree of enthusiasm, taking in Sherlock’s rambling words and creating a sense out of them not unlike how Dr. Watson teased well paid stories out of Sherlock’s delusions. Though she had many faults, Mycroft had to admit that apathy was not one of them, for she was very kind to Sherlock and seemed to relate to him on a level that not even Dr. Watson could achieve. Even if he was in the midst of one of his worst tantrums, delusions making him dangerous to himself and others, it was Ingrid who could calm him, her flat voice a beacon in Sherlock’s internal chaos.
“Do you think your Russian math teacher bathes in the river?”
Mycroft was losing patience with the subject. “We are not going to talk about Ingrid’s math teacher, Sherlock, for it is not a healthy topic for you. Perhaps it would be better if we hear of the further adventures of Mary and Harriette, for America was not their only stop along the way to their swamp in Florida. “
“Alligators and crocodiles--Were you chased by them?” Sherlock took another large bite of his croissant. “I hear everything is hungry in swampy water.”
“I didn’t even get a glimpse of our Young Jack and he’s gone off on an adventure already,” Mary pouted. “I’d rather he be here too to get the tale nice and fresh, we’ll be too tired later to replay it properly.”
Harriette petted a magnolia bud and brought its fragrance close to her slender nose. She smiled over its delicate scent. “We’ve said most of went on already.”
“We didn’t mention Bowling Green.”
Harriette paled slightly at this. “I’m not sure we should, given what Ingrid has told us and not to mention the effect it may have on Sherlock’s sensibilities.”
“I assure you I am perfectly able to have sense,” Sherlock defended. “But the circumstances don’t always allow it.”
Mycroft, despite his warning to Ingrid, was curious about their uncharacteristic reticence. “You are always keen to tell a tall tale, Mary, and for you to hesitate over this one says much. Our time here at the Holmes estate has been replete with sunny days, save for this one, leisurely walks, thick books and echoing, empty halls. However hair raising your story may be, I long to hear it!” He grinned as he sat in the wooden chair beside Ingrid, who gave him a surly look, no doubt annoyed by his hypocrisy. He turned to his brother. “Sherlock, why don’t you go and beg of Mrs. Healey to make us some tea? We barely had a chance to enjoy a cup this morning in all of the commotion with everyone’s unexpected arrivals.”
Sherlock was instantly put out by this. “I want to hear it all! This is a ruse to ruin my life!”
“If I wanted to ruin your life, Sherlock, I can think of more effective ways than giving you a delightful, stress free country home juxtaposed with the excitement and attention you get in spades in London. The only harm I give you is your spoiling.”
“You wish to bore me to death.”
“I wish to have tea. Off you go.”
Cursing him, Sherlock stomped off like a wayward child, and when he was well out of earshot Mycroft turned back to his female companions and bid them to spill their story.
“It wasn’t long after our trip to the Appalachians and our experience with the snake handlers,” Harriette began, her soft voice falling upon the flower petals that surrounded her from the blooming magnolia tree. She visibly shuddered. “America is a strange place, full of the influence of Indian myths and religions and a fierce hovel of interpretations of Christianity that is unrecognizable elsewhere. There is no central church and this coupled with poor literacy has some denominations springing up that have their entire belief structure built upon a single Biblical verse, as in the case of the snake handlers.”
“‘ Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. ( Luke 10:19 ).’” Mary nodded at the verse. “My old gran taught me the Bible prettily enough. I was able to read and write on account of it, and for that at least I’m grateful. Not so much a follower of its content, to be honest, though I try my best to be good to people, and from what I’ve garnered from that Big Book, I’ve got the proper gist of it.”
“We basically ran for our lives from that congregation, as we told you,” Harriette continued. “We found ourselves on the railroad and took a long trip south to Kentucky, which led us to the Kentucky Derby, which we decided to attend. Well, when Mary saw the name of the horse, she had to put a substantial bet on it and though we weren’t skint of savings it was imperative we improve our situation as soon as possible lest we end up singing for coins on street corners.”
“You bet on horses?” Mycroft exclaimed, scandalized.
“Just the one,” Mary said. “Its name was Judge Hines. The similarity with your own name and profession, a person so close to us, how could we not? And like Harriette said, we was skint at the time, and a little worse than what she’s suggesting, and I weren’t about to go back to my old profession any time soon, not when I’ve finally had a taste of some proper work what uses my real talents.” Mary sat up in deserved pride. “So we bet on him--and a good thing too!”
“The purse was six thousand dollars,” Harriette said and gave a little giggle at this. “We made a hefty sum that day! It’s why we are merely regrouping our losses rather than being outright destitute.”
“Incredible!” Mycroft grinned. “But what of Bowling Green?”
Harriette hesitated. It was Mary who took over the narrative.
“We thought it would be fortuitous for us to have our portraits taken, some of them in costume for we were still performing plays throughout the Americas, sometimes more morality based and in churches and others in larger venues--basically, anywhere who would have us. We had several plays in rotation, the one you are familiar with and helped develop, of course, Mr. Holmes, along with a tale of a redeemed fallen woman…”
“I wrote every word of that one!”
“Yes, Mary, and it was very popular in the churches for some reason, despite there being no vocalist interludes as in our other plays.”
“I bare a knee once or twice, in the second act. We nearly got lynched in Georgia on account of it!”
“We were lucky to have such a speedy coach out,” Harriette agreed. “But I digress, thanks to Mary’s interruptions..” She gave her friend and business partner a cautionary glare and Mary made a motion to button her own lip to allow Harriette to continue. “We were in Kentucky, having just won a small fortune, and we found ourselves in a little photography studio in Bowling Green and were keen to have some portraits made that could be used on our playbills. Mary brought several costumes, one of them of an Arabic princess, and I wore my best dress, a pale blue cotton and muslin one that is very similar to what I am wearing now.”
“She wears clothes like a uniform,” Mary muttered under her breath. “She fit right in with those churchies.”
Harriette rolled her eyes, but was not otherwise distracted. “So we entered this tiny little studio, and this rather young, thoughtful, handsome man came out from the back room and agreed to take our pictures for what I thought was a remarkably small fee for the amount of them. He had very dark, thoughtful eyes and looked on us as though he recognized us, and I had to wonder if perhaps he had seen one of our recent performances. He knew my name, as well as Mary’s and casually stated that he had been expecting us, and to come into the back room where everything was already set up to take our pictures. It was very strange, for we had never set foot in that studio in our lives and we certainly had never met him before.
He bid me to sit on a large, red velvet chair in the darkened room, his flash held aloft and, before he requested I adjust my position on it, he tilted his head to one side and stated ‘I see you have a very morose aura, despite all of the joys this life has given you. I hope that your sorrow can be healed today, for to carry it with you everywhere you go must be a terrible, heavy burden.’ And then he laid the flash upon the camera to rest it and approached me directly, addressing not myself, but some shadow that was standing behind me that I could not see. ‘You should leave her to live her life. It matters not if you don’t approve or that she is no longer the lonely woman pining for you as you were in life. She has a right to her experiences and emotional fulfillment, and hindering her is an unkindness. Surely you acknowledge this?’
It was the strangest thing! I *felt* an agreement had passed between this young photographer and whatever was weighing behind me, and suddenly I felt as though I were lighter! My shoulders ceased to droop, my neck and head no longer heavy weights! My heart was opened and it was as though every nerve and muscle and blood within me was tingling!”
“How strange,” Mycroft agreed. “Did he reveal what he saw standing behind you?”
“He did not need to,” Harriette quietly replied. “I know who it was.” Her thoughtful gaze turned inward. “I had cared for his children, and I did love him and he loved me. But I was not going to become his mistress in anything but the spirit and he understood this. When he died at sea he took a large part of my soul with him, and to lose both him and his children when his wife dismissed my governess position...He cared for me as though I were his mistress and she always suspected it was so, but my reputation was firmly intact. Theirs had been a marriage of fortunes, not love. As I had been kind to her children as they grew she did not grudge me my little house where young Jack first found me and subsequently you and Inspector Lestrade and Mary and even Mrs. Hudson--My new family.”
Mycroft was skeptical. “Are you telling me this photographer saw a ghost haunting you?”
“He saw a shadow and the burden of it was relieved. But that is not the strangest part of the encounter.”
“The good Lord save us!”
They had forgotten that Mr. Healey was still present, and he was now seated near the cactii, completely engrossed by Harriette’s tale, his filthy hands clenched in tense excitement on the equally mucky knees of his wool trousers. “That’s a shock enough, Miss Turner, but to think there’s even more to it! What manner of witchcraft was this man practising?”
“Nothing like that, for he himself was a deeply spiritual, Christian man and I can’t say he was a heathen. You must recollect that we encountered a wide variety of worship in the wilderness of that new continent. His form of work upon me, as one would call it, was to exorcise me of a burden, not to engage or exploit it. But it was what he said next that shocked Mary and I both to core.” Harriette took in a shaky breath. “He told us it was imperative that we return in the evening, when the shop was closed, and to listen to him when he slept, for he had an overwhelming feeling that we had to hear what the body had to say.”
Mycroft frowned. “You had to return in the evening to...Listen to him while he slept?” He was further confused. “As in, while he talked in his sleep?”
“I thought he was right mad,” Mary admitted.
“He refused to take our money. He was so earnest and real about his need for us to return and he was clearly a harmless enough fellow that we both figured this was just part of our experiences and that to do as he asked would afford no harm. So, we agreed and returned later that evening, and he greeted us with the same familiar politeness and bid us to join him in the back room where the portraits were taken. At first we were alarmed at the sudden appearance of a settee and of course Mary immediately whispered to me that he had to be up to some perverse pleasure seeking, but this was not the case. He seemed very tired, and laid upon the settee, and told us both to pull up two chairs, one the velvet one I’d used for my portrait and one a simpler wooden chair that he used when taking photographs. He then bid us to remain very quiet and to listen and transcribe all that he said while he slept.”
“I right thought he was a nutter taking the piss.” Mary nodded to herself, reflecting on the memory. “I was ready to leave after ten minutes of listening to his snoring, grabbed my stole and all and snatched up Harriette’s wrist, ready to drag her out no matter how gross her curiosity. That was when it started…”
“He told us, or whatever it was that talked through him, angel or devil, we’re none of us sure...It told us we were to return from where we came from after losing a great fortune and we would have our hopes rekindled. It bid us to change course and head for Chicago and to align ourselves with a movement there, going so far as to give us specific names and addresses for contact. It told us outright to avoid Florida for it would bear us no fruit--Advice we clearly did not take--and that our paths were to take a very different course from the ones we were on now. That I was not so different from the body that held whatever it was that spoke to us, and that I should pursue more metaphysical realms rather than the spiritual, for I have a gift for such encounters. It told us we were to go to Bath, to the Holmes estate--Yes, it used your name!--for there was a strange occurrence there that would change our lives and fortunes forever and we were to embrace it as a new way of seeing the world and to put our roots in such work, for it was spiritually necessary for all involved.”
“Then he woke up, blinked his eyes, and had no clue at all of what he’d said while sleeping and even begged us to see the notes we made!” Mary shook her head in wonder. “I was spooked, right to my toes, and all I wanted to do was run from him! I still had my hand on Harriette’s wrist and grabbed her tight enough to bruise. She had to peel me off of her!”
“I wrote it all in a small notebook. It’s locked away in my chest and I admit I get goose pimples when I spy the leather cover and know what’s written inside of it. He said a few other things, too, about you and and Inspector Lestrade, and somehow knew everyone’s names and their professions and intimate details.” She blushed as she looked at an alarmed Mycroft. “Despite his intense Christian outlook, he was remarkably understanding, and said that there is no judgement where honest love is and it is God’s design that we find full expression of it, both physically and spiritually. Truly good men are rare, his ‘body’ said, and that you and Inspector Lestrade are two of the finest specimens to know.”
“A high compliment from an unusual stranger,” Mycroft replied. “I should hope your visit here is not based solely on those odd predictions, and that you understand that your presence is one I both longed for and am grateful to host. You are both more than friends to me, and are as part of my blood as though you were born my sisters.”
“Don’t go making me blubber,” Mary complained. “I just painted me lashes with some kohl I got at an India market in New York and they’ll go all runny if you keep that up!”
Ingrid, who had been listening intently all this time, stirred from her seat. “I thought you were *in* India, watching the fakirs charm the snakes?”
“There’s plenty of them in New York,” Mary clarified. “Might as well have been there, what with all the saris and silks and all.” She gave the memory a thoughtful nod. “To be fair, there was a good amount of gypsy folk in there, too. Maybe some Irish. Definitely lots of Russians. But the snakes, yeah...In jars, pickled, some of them. They drink the juice, supposed to give you energy or some such, it’s like a wine, they say. Can’t recommend it myself.”
The young servant girl, looking harried as usual, rushed into the arboretum with the brass tea cart, Sherlock following close behind. She fussily began setting the table where Ingrid was seated, and with shaking hands she placed the sugar dish and milk in the centre, spilling some of both. She hastily mopped it up with a rag tucked into her apron, and then disappeared as quickly as she arrived. Mycroft did not miss the intense scrutiny of Mary as she watched this girl, no doubt thinking that this is what respectability would have looked like for her had she not found her talent for singing and performing. Perhaps Betsy was being worked too hard by Mrs. Healey, and Mycroft would have to have a word with the matron about her draconian management. Betsy did a good job and finding a servant in the first place was becoming increasingly difficult, mostly because of the strict rules of conduct that choked the life out of having any kind of independence outside of one’s employment.
“You gone and spooked wee Betsy.” Mr. Healey grunted as he stood up, ready to continue his pruning of the raspberry bushes in the far corner of the arboretum. “She were probably standing there listening the whole time, the new generation is like that, they don’t have the wherewithal to mind their own like Mrs. Healey and I. She’s all into that ghosts and hauntings and fairy folk talk, she can’t get enough of it and gives herself nightmares when she retires for the night, so Jenny told us. She can read, our Betsy, and I don’t think we’ll have her long with us, to be fair. She’s been taking dictation for an antiques fellow what’s writing a collection of ghost stories and typing up his drafts. The stories have gotten right under her skin and yet she can’t stop herself from wallowing in ‘em. It’s a sickness, like, and I’m thinking this whole house has got it now.” He grumbled an unintelligible prayer and turned his back on all of them as he got to work, the thin shoots of raspberry bush that gave no fruit neatly trimmed with a clip of his gardening shears.
Sherlock poured himself a tea, heedless of everyone else. The amber brew spilled on the table and over the sides of his flowery cup like sap. “Mother is in the hallway,” he stated. “The long, empty, dark one upstairs. It’s where she likes to lurk and hide from the monster in the river. The faeries can’t bite her there. She is happy, Mycroft. She holds her arms out and tries to embrace me, but as she’s dead, she can’t.”
Mycroft shivered at this, for it was a common delusion with Sherlock and it never ceased to seep into his very marrow, for all her faults he did still love his mother. Like Sherlock she couldn’t help the fact she was ill. She had never embraced either of them in life, it was as if they were mere footnotes to her hallucinations. Perhaps she had made this omission on purpose, afraid of doing them both harm should she give them too much attention. It was impossible to know.
“I wonder how Jack and Inspector Lestrade are getting on with their murder,” Mary wondered aloud. “A strange sort of place for that kind of violence, it’s so very quiet here. If a beetle was stepped on it would create a ruckus.”
“I’m oddly favourable towards it,” Mycroft admitted and sat at the table with Ingrid and Sherlock, a fresh steaming cup of tea poured for all. He handed a pink flowered cup to Harriette and a dark blue one with Chinese lettering on it to Mary. Ingrid declined a cup. None of their tea sets ever matched, Sherlock was far too careless with them and Mycfroft could not be bothered with such a vain expense. “He has been moping about the estate searching for something to do as he does every year and comes up empty. He ends up spending too much time in the village downing pints at The Baying Hound.”
“They do make an excellent shepherd’s pie, my Lordship,” Mr. Healey said. “Don’t tell the missus, but it’s of far better quality than hers. He uses the Marmite in it for flavour.”
“I wonder who got snuffed.” Ingrid folded her arms in front of her on the table. “There’s plenty around here I’d love to put in a grave.”
“That’s a rather awful admission, Ingrid,” Mycroft sharply replied.
“It’s true what Mary said. This place is so quiet and dull that the death of a beetle doesn’t go unnoticed.” She tucked her thick, long locks of dark hair behind her ears and propped her chin in her palm in reflection. “I wonder who it was, and better yet, how did it happen? Was it a strangling? I’m betting that’s it, and probably a woman, too, since there’s not a wife in that village who has a husband who knows the meaning of temperance. Strangling is the easiest course and such men are notoriously lazy when it comes to their families. A stagger home, a concerned wife, an angry lout and voila--A strangled, pretty corpse. That’s usually how these things go.”
“I did not know you to be such an expert on these matters, Ingrid.” Mycroft gave her a sidelong glare. “From what I understand your issues at school are a symptom of this outspoken, morbid outlook. Perhaps if you do not concentrate so heavily on judging others you would fare better with your peers.”
But Ingrid was not shamed by this and instead gave the just criticism a tired shrug. “I can’t help it if most people have tiny minds and mine is larger. Headmistress Yearwood has little understanding of the expanded consciousness, and she makes gross assumptions about my experiences at her school. I have plenty of friends, I just choose not to be open in my display of them.”
Mycroft was not convinced of this, for he had plenty of evidence that Ingrid was a solitary creature and not one who people warmed to in any sense of the word. Save for Jack, of course, a highly unfortunate infatuation that both he and Lestrade were fighting against every time he visited. As he was now at that impressionable age when young men proclaim their true love at the droop of every dark set of eyelashes, their interactions would have to be carefully monitored.
“She got a point, though, Mr. Holmes,” Mr. Healey said, not being helpful whatsoever. “There’s plenty of rough types in the village, and if there is to be a murder it only stands to reason it be one of them. My bet’s on Hoot. He’s a boozer and beggar and his poor wife tries to make ends meet doing needlework and they go without suppers most nights. Inherited that tiny sheep farm up from Cotswold’s Way. Doesn’t know a thing about sheep and even less about wool. It’s his sons and his wife what run it, best they can, and he goes and drinks all the profit they make from it. It’s a sad business, and he ain’t the only one like that.”
“We will find out the victim soon enough, Mr. Healey, what we imagine is hardly a fact.”
“True enough, Mr. Holmes. We’ll have facts aplenty when Inspector Lestrade comes home.”
He said this overly cheerfully, a sign that he was looking forward to hearing the real life penny dreadful that had befallen his little place in the world, and in truth all of the servants of the house loved Lestrade for he was always puttering about and talking about his past cases and adventures and generally was the darling of entertainment in the Holmes estate as a result. Mrs. Healey did not approve, of course, and her servants were not permitted to interact with him under her watch, but Lestrade was crafty enough to wait until she had gone to bed and then he would creep downstairs under the pretence of taking tea or rummaging for a nibble and then, with the servants gathered at the large table in the centre of the kitchen, he would relate his hair raising tales of London crime and murder, his audience rapt. Mycroft, of course, had heard all of them before, and was intimately involved in many of the trials and thus had his sick fill of the lot and had no interest in revisiting the cases once they were closed.
“It’s a curious, dark thing for a person to murder another,” Mr. Healey said, mostly to himself. “You got to wonder what kind of ghost gets left behind after that violence. With the state of some lives around here, you got to wonder if they are half relieved. It ain’t an easy thing to live.”
With that he gathered up his gardening tools and left the arboretum, those left behind weighing the wisdom of his words.
“He’s a rather gruesome fellow, isn’t he, Mr. Healey?” Ingrid observed. “Never says a word unless it’s about a crime or a spook and suddenly he’s the chattiest man in the world.”
“He should stick to his gardening.” Mycroft couldn’t keep the irritation from his voice. “I do hope none of you take any mind of him, he’s running on gossip and speculation and few facts. We don’t even know if what happened was in actuality murder or an assumption of it. We are wallowing in ignorance, and it is intolerable.”
“Evidence,” Ingrid said.
“What do you mean, girl?”
“We are weighing what evidence we have been given. There has been an event, someone is dead, and the mayor has called it murder. And we have nothing more than that, and yes, we speculate because it is dreadful, and it most definitely will be someone we likely see every single day.” Ingrid sighed. “That’s why we are talking about it, and why Mr. Healey had his own suppositions. We are frightened by it. Murder should be a distant thing, when it’s in London it’s far away from us, an abstract and that’s why the servants find Mr. Lestrade so entertaining. They won’t want to know any of this one and what they do find out will be from other sources and not Mr. Lestrade’s mouth. Murder has come home. And it’s someone we know.”
Chapter 4: Murder Most Foul
“It seems Mr. Hoot was not well liked in the village. Not a soul expressed surprise at how he met his end.” Lestrade dusted sugary crumbs from his waistcoat, leaving powered white streaks. “How this town runs without a police force is beyond me. They have one elderly constable who has been around since King Arthur trotted about in the woods. He can barely read or write and doesn’t speak properly either on account of him missing most of his teeth. I won’t get into the fact he’s got a glass eye. And here’s this guy, telling me about the crime and how my help isn’t needed--the preposterous cheek!” Lestrade shook his head and took another bite of his beignet leaving another rain of crumbs on his collar this time. “If it wasn't for that mayor, what’s his name--Littlebum, I think he called himself--the whole case would have hinged on that sole constable’s testimony if it even managed to get to court. He was ready to call it death by misadventure!”
Mycroft was only half listening for he was paying far more attention to Jack who was now in conspiratal whispering with Ingrid in the far corner. It was now early evening and after a day of touring the grounds and rooms of the Holmes estate Mycroft, Jack, Ingrid and Lestrade had retired to the reading room, where a warm fire was now gently heating the cozy space. Unlike his father’s study, which was attached by a long glass door to the arboretum, the library was tucked into the far innards of the estate, more towards the middle, and where the study was open and allowed in all of the sun’s rays and a good view of the foliage beyond it, the library had no windows and relied heavily on gaslight for illumination. It was a strange place to put a library as one had to strain to see the words on the page, but the candles were plentiful and the gaslights gave off a steady enough, warm glow, the result easier on the eyes than one would expect.
“You stopped at the bakery again?” Mycroft raised a brow at the crumbs littering around Lestrade like a halo of wheat. “A tad excessive, don’t you think?”
“It was Littlebum’s idea,” Lestrade insisted. “They aren’t used to crime scenes around here, and the smell of the blood and death, not to mention the terrible conditions Hoot’s family lived in made us gather there after getting our fill of the scene. I’m sure Mrs. Hoot does her best, but with six children and most of them sickly it’s a wonder the slight little thing can rise from her bed at all. She can’t weigh more than eighty pounds and I’m being generous. The children are little thin blades of grass. All of which makes that fat oaf’s corpse all the more worthy of his end, if you ask me. I’ve seen plenty of his like in the East End. Drinking all their money away without a thought for their families and heavy fisted about it.” Lestrade shook his head at the selfishness of it. “How does a man call himself one and live that kind of life? He’s of more use to them as a corpse, as it stands. His young widow is set to have a good payout.”
Mycroft settled into the deep red leather chair by the fire, its cushions molding to his slight form perfectly. He picked up a copy of the new Law Society Gazette which he had been pressed to review from several of his peers, but then let it drop and instead chose Motorcycling and Motoring which despite being only a few months old was already as dogeared as if it had been a Bible passed down through generations. He kept such curiosity from Mr. Pinter, who was still their chief coachman, but the tides of progress were beginning and he longed to experience the speed and smoothness of a motor car, a fascinating invention that had already been implemented in several of London’s precincts and was used to transport groups of fellow officers to public gatherings where they could control the crowds. He was still nervous the telephone they had installed at Holmes estate, but it was Lestrade who had become insistent upon that, and he had the line built and put in within the week of their discussion about it.
Mrs. Hudson, of course, had already had one put in the front hall at 221 Baker Street the minute they left for Bath, and according to Jack it hadn’t stopped ringing since.
“If you didn’t need to remain at the crime scene to discuss it, it seems there was not much to go over,” Mycroft observed. “How did the man meet his end?”
“Done in with a fire poker through the heart,” Lestrade said. “Very quickly, and with surprising unflinching efficiency, like he’d been assassinated by a professional.”
Mycroft paled at this, but did not look up from his magazine. A pretty, red Ford Model A pretended to catch the bulk of his attention. “I’ve not known the local village to be full of expert murderers.”
“He was already passed out on the ground when he was pinned by it. Still, it would take a good amount of strength and force to get the poker past the breastplate, and that tiny little wife of his could barely lift a frying pan let alone do in her husband, so it’s safe to say she’s not a suspect. Her children are all too young, varying in age from infant to six years old, and all of them half starved as it is. They lived in a tiny single room cottage with a dirt floor, a couple of beds roughly constructed from knotted logs, a table and three chairs and one iron frying pan on a coal stove. Some cracked plates on a shelf and a couple of faded teacups given to them in charity, or stolen were on a makeshift shelf above the small, broken cabinet that served as a pantry. Cheap aluminum utensils were laid out on the table. The sheets on the nearby beds were threadbare and the wool blankets so patched it was hard to tell what was the original fabric. Truly, I have not seen such poverty since I have been shovelling up corpses along the waterfront and it is a disgrace to find it here, where there is ample room for fellow villagers to aid in Mrs. Hoot’s dilemma.”
“It seems as though someone did just that.” Mycroft let the magazine rest in his lap as he concentrated on what Lestrade had said. “Mr. Healey remarked on him, and speculated he was your murder victim. Surely this means that everyone in the village was well aware of his neglect and abuse and thus were not tolerant of it. I suspect Mrs. Hoot and the children have been on the receiving end of the village’s charity for quite some time.”
“I should hope so, but you can’t bank on the generosity of country folk, I’m sure Mary Oakes would attest to that. She had to escape to London to seek her fortune when she lost her gran, and no one cared to ask after her. We all know what her early life was like when she arrived, still a child, in that bustling den of depravity we call Haymarket..” Lestrade frowned as he stood in front of the fire, the embers colouring him in a sepia glow. “Apathy is a specifically cruel human trait, for even ants rally around injured fellows. Further awful still is the way that its opposite, empathy, can be used for acts of evil. I have no suspects, Mycroft. Too many wanted the rotten bastard dead. Right down to the newborn babe.”
“Surely there was a witness?”
“None at all.” Lestrade tore his gaze from the fire and addressed Jack, who was still huddled with Ingrid in the corner of the library, her copy of the Rubaiyat open on her knees. “Jack, perhaps you have some insights? You would have been proud of him, Mycroft, he approached the body without a care in the world, didn’t blush or pale at the sight of it and immediately bent down and got to work identifying the fatal blow to Hoot’s heart. He found the poker, too, placed back at the fireplace in its usual spot, according to Mrs. Hoot. What do you make of the crime scene, Jack? You were detailed in your report, go on and relate it back to Mycroft.”
Jack, however, was very reluctant to revisit the crime scene even as an abstract and he didn’t leave Ingrid’s side instead remaining half in the dark with her. “As you said, it was straight forward. The one who did it had to have some good strength to get through those bones, it’s true, but then he wasn’t a healthy man with the strong stamina of the working classes. He was an alcoholic and had little by way of proper nutrition. His bones were a lot frailer than most and there were definite signs of degeneration so we can’t entirely rule out that it was done by a woman.” Jack was pensive. “It was a waste of time, to be honest. He had all the signs of fatal cancer--jaundice indicating lost kidney function, hollowed eyes from lack of nutrients reaching the body, wasting of the muscles and a quick press upon his stomach revealed myriad tumours within it. I wouldn’t have given him a month of life. All that was needed to make Mrs. Hoot a widow without the drama of murder was patience.”
“Mrs. Hoot cries out ‘Whoo Whoo?’ into the night, and doesn’t get an answer.”
“Gregory talks of apathy and you leap upon the notion like you fashioned it. Really, Ingrid, that is not appropriate, a man is dead…”
“A dreadful man,” Ingrid reminded him.
“Yes, but murder is murder.”
“Not when it’s karma,” Ingrid replied.
Jack choked on a laugh at this and was quick to quash it when he saw his two benefactors were glaring at him in unison. He hid his remaining smile behind his palm, his fingers spread wide across his handsome face and holding in his cheeks.
“She has a point, no matter how rude it is,” Lestrade said. He was leaning over the fire now, his weight rested on his elbow as he was lit from below, casting eerie shadows over him. “I haven’t got a single witness and without that my deductive method feels useless. The murderer was careful and clean, the worst sort of criminal, for they leave nothing behind except the very clear message that they have done this before and have learned from past mistakes. We used Coulier’s iodine fuming method to draw prints off of surfaces but to no avail--it’s obvious the murderer used gloves.”
“What of Mrs. Hoot’s associates?” Mycroft tucked his copy of Motoring and Motorcycles back into the magazine rack at the side of his chair and gave Lestrade’s problem his full attention. “She obviously is a woman with friends as so many in the village are aware of her desperate situation. What do they have to say about it?”
At this Lestrade’s mood instantly became hooded and dark. “They pulled ranks.”
Mycroft blinked at this. “How do you mean?”
“How else do I mean? The lot of them hide behind their skirts like it’s a fortress! Not one said anything, not one heard anything, not one saw anything--No complaints, nothing! Of course every one of them is lying and there’s no way to infiltrate that kind of united inner secrecy without wearing the right skirt!” He tore himself from the fireplace and stormed to the tea cart where a brandy decanter and a set of crystal tumblers were polished and waiting. He poured himself a generous drink and then, as an afterthought, bid Mycroft to have one as well and he nodded his assent.
“Women are such frustrating creatures,” Lestrade continued, handing Mycroft his glass of brandy which he took with both hands. “They backstab each other with remarkable acuity and yet when the need for such a competitive, catty attitude presents itself they are all suddenly in solidarity! I am forever grateful that I am a man who has no need for them!”
“I suspect the feeling is mutual,” Ingrid muttered.
Mycroft ignored her. The warmth from the brandy was loosening his lips and he enjoyed the faint warm tingle he felt upon them. “You are being prejudicial, Gregory, for you can not lump ‘all women’ into this scenario for we have plenty of intelligent examples of that half of our species to draw better conclusions from. There is no conspiracy, there is only feminine support.”
Ingrid scoffed at this, and Mycroft turned his head to see her, his brow raised. “Mr. Lestrade is right. Women are terrible to one another usually, and love to rip a girl to ribbons over not wearing the right colours that match or getting the right edition of a textbook, or, heaven forbid, she not perform some exacting minutiae of social propriety like not putting out a pinkie when drinking tea or painting one’s lips too bright a shade or blushing too much or being too pale or being too fat or too thin or perhaps being a hussy because she longs for love or being frigid because she could care less about it. Pick, pick, pick is how most women relate to one another...So for them to be in agreement about something, and something this juicy and salacious, well...There is *definitely* a witness or two or three among them and they have closed themselves off from you because gossip has become too much of a risk for the entire group and not just one lone chicken ready to be beheaded.”
“It’s a terrible fact, but she’s right.” Jack stretched out his legs and crossed his arms. He would look the perfect pub gentleman if he had a pipe in his mouth. “Mrs. Hudson has witnessed it herself at The London School of Medicine for Women where there is fierce competition between the women studying there to the point they ostracize one another during the anatomical practicals. But then, just as easily, if they see that even an unpopular student is genuinely struggling and merely needs some emotional support, they rally around them like little hens nurturing a chick and study with her until she begins to improve. But make no mistake, the nitpicking on the wards between nurses of different schooling is terribly fierce and while they don’t poison each other for fun like the male doctors do, the female doctors are known for being draconian and unbending in their quest for perfect medicine. There is no sense of humour among any of them, at least according to Mrs. Hudson.”
“When you are at war with the lowered expectations of your gender there is hardly room for ‘fun’.” Ingrid snapped her copy of the Rubaiyat closed. “I’m tired, and bored. I’m going to bed.”
Mycroft considered bringing up the issue of the note from her headmistress once again, especially now that Lestrade was present, but he no longer had the energy for the draining argument that would ensue. Truthfully, he had no clue how to best approach the subject with her, for the conversation this evening revealed much about Ingrid’s current relationship with her peers. Was she on the gossiped end, nitpicked and bullied and left in torn ribbons and was too proud to admit defeat? Or was she the oppressor, a far worse scenario, and some other young woman was her ostracized victim? Or, worst of all and most likely, was she the mastermind behind a following, with weaker peers hanging on her strange, disjointed wisdom as though she were some bosomed guru bringing them her dark, nihilistic version of enlightenment?
Ingrid swept out of the room like a faerie creature, her long hair and light skirts trailing behind her like gossamer wings.
“We must talk to her tomorrow, Gregory.”
“There’s nothing wrong with her that some manners can’t fix,” he shot back. He took a very large gulp of his brandy and grimaced over it.
Mycroft turned to Jack. “I did not know Mrs. Hudson had become so active at the university. When did this start?”
“In mid June. She teaches several classes, notably on wound dressings and another on surgical hygiene. She’s very excited because Dr. Rukhmabai is guest lecturing this month and she’s hoping it means a surge of female specialists attending the school from India. She’s become a bit of fixture herself there, our Mrs. Hudson has, and there’s even been a few articles written about her outspoken criticism of cauterizations over stitches and the traditional use of mercury for treating syphilis instead of bismuth in combination with arsenic compounds, a practise she calls medieval.”
“I’m sure that has won her favour among the male surgeons,” Mycroft deadpanned. “Her celebrity might be more of the forceful type found on revolutionaries.”
“She is passionate about her work,” Jack insisted.
“Passion must be properly directed, as it is in you, dear boy,” Lestrade fondly replied. He had poured himself another brandy much to Mycroft’s chagrin. “I was quite proud of your efforts today, as I have mentioned to Mycroft. You are getting close to an age where you can decide which precinct you wish to work in…”
“I am not interested in going over that at present.” Jack feigned a yawn. “Perhaps it’s time I retire myself, it’s been a long journey and day.”
“We can discuss it over breakfast.”
Jack hesitated, and unfortunately, Lestrade caught it. “I..I’m going to be busy tomorrow. Mr. Healey has invited me on a hike across the estate grounds and in the surrounding forest and it will take us quite some time. I’m keen to upgrade my knowledge of known medicinal herbs and their properties and would like to get a hands on excursion of them.”
“Mr. Healey!” Lestrade exclaimed. “Since when does a walk in the woods with an old superstitious gardener trump important police work!”
Jack opened his mouth as though to discuss the matter further and then shut it, thinking the better of it. His mouth became a thin, determined line. He wouldn’t meet either of their gaze and he slunk away after a muttered “Goodnight.” His steps were oddly light as he went up the stairs leading to the bedrooms, as though he were careful of breaking a fragile mood.
Thus there was a lingering tension in the air, made all the worse by the sip Lestrade took of his brandy, staring at the spot where Jack and Ingrid had been sitting, his frown descending into a scowl.
Mycroft did not dare to tempt that silence with his opinion on the matter.
“I worry about him,” Lestrade finally said. “He’s got his head full of weird notions and he was more like Inspector Harding at that crime scene, all over the body and talking about the man’s condition and with only a passing glance at the wound that did him in. I’m not sure about his work ethic.”
“His success in his studies says otherwise,” Mycroft reminded him.
“His focus is off.”
“Perhaps, as I’ve said, he’s not made for police work and would prefer the other side of the law.”
“We’re not having this push me, pull me right now.”
Mycroft knew better than to argue. He watched Lestrade skulk off, and waited until his steps echoed down the long hallway to the bedroom that adjoined his own. He wondered if Lestrade would keep his door open. Considering his current dark mood it was unlikely.
He shook open the magazine he’d closed and lost himself in the new Model A.
“I don’t know why breakfast always has to be so elaborate in these kinds of places, not complaining, mind, but it’s an odd tradition when we were lucky to get coffee and toast in America, let alone a full meal--They have a strange obsession with dried cereals. It didn’t matter where we stayed, rich or poor. They obsess over eggs and you’ll never find sausages on a plate, just toast, some kind of watery jam and a scrambled egg or mostly boiled and some kind of poached chicken. They serve the lot with catsup. And coffee. Always with the coffee, unless you are in Utah, where tea is thought to be sinful and you get some kind of hot barley thing that’s overly sweet.”
“I rather liked the johnny cakes,” Harriette said, lathering her scone with butter. Mary nodded as she took another bite, her plate littered with crumbs.
Mrs. Healey, having been given both the treat and challenge of a house suddenly full of guests, had pulled no stops in her breakfast array and had her girls put the smaller breakfast tables together to make for one large central buffet around which the guests were seated. There were her infamous scones, and slices of ham and cold roast beef and chicken and poached eggs and muffins, ornate, exotic looking fruits such as oranges and figs and apples and a central pineapple that made Mycroft wonder if Mrs. Healey had blown the entire kitchen budget for the summer, and tea and coffee and cream and squares of sugar and dainty cups and delicate plates and silverware buffed to glistening.
Lestrade had the paper folded beside his cup of coffee, freshly pressed and still warm, and Jack ambled in late, his hair in disarray, his sweater on rather sloppily for the morning repast. He rubbed his eyes as though not used to the early hour, or perhaps he was used to late nights of study, and he sat at the long table with a thud. “Tea? Marvellous!” He yawned and reached for the teapot only for Mycroft to tutt him as Betsy, smiling faintly at him, reached for the pot instead and poured him a cup.
Ingrid was seated at the far end of the table, too close to Jack for Mycroft’s liking, and she took nothing for breakfast save for a glass of orange juice. Lestrade was tucking in as though he hadn’t been fed in weeks and in truth was the only glutton at the table. He was always fond of his breakfasts. Sherlock hadn’t awoken yet, and wouldn’t be present until early afternoon.
“Jack, perhaps you could help me today,” Mycroft offered and Jack blearily glanced at him, confused. “I could use a pair of eyes on a case I am working on that is coming up next month and I want to make sure I have all of my details in order. I could use some cataloguing on the law references required and the witness statements need to be outlined in its accordance as well. It’s a rather dull case, I’m afraid, a straight forward infanticide brought about by poverty, the usual problem encountered during the winter months, when this happened, and while there are calls for clemency on the basis of their wretched state, I do fear the father of the infant has no qualms against his crime and is possibly at risk of committing further ones against his progeny.”
“Are you looking to hang him?” Mary boldly asked.
“Most definitely. A man like that can’t be tolerated in civil society.”
Jack paled at this, and Mycroft was suddenly alarmed, wondering if the young man was, in fact, ill, and not overly tired at all. “I’m not really interested in that I’m afraid,” Jack said, and he hid further conversation on the matter with long sips of tea and stuffing his face with bland toast.
Lestrade, however, seemed to believe he’d claimed a victory. “Well, then, you can come with me in town later and we can re-examine those witnesses again! One of them has to crack!”
“As I said last night, I am going on an excursion with Mr. Healey and will be spending a good amount of time going over the pharmaceutical angle of the herbs he’s introducing me to. There’s been a lot of talk about the benefits of garlic, for example, and I’ve been reading some interesting studies on its effects on thickened blood. There’s talk that the acetylic acid in willow bark has the same effect, the drug aspirin is derived from it, and it seems to have an anticoagulant effect, though most doctors don’t agree with that analysis. It’s still in the very early stages of study.”
Thus animated, Jack suddenly discovered the table was laden with food and with this new passion ignited he began to load up his plate with cutlets and fruit and a couple of poached eggs. Both Mycroft and Lestrade were left speechless, the unbidden discussion lurking between them like a hangman’s noose, calling them both losers in their small war on Jack’s future endeavours.
“Ingrid, please eat something, your dawdling will make you late for school.”
Sighing, she reluctantly picked up a triangle of the expensive pineapple and nibbled on it.
“We understand she’s had some issues as of late at the boarding school,” Harriette said to Mycroft, who was slightly taken aback by the frankness of her speech since she was usually such a quiet woman. “I know this may be overstepping, and you have every right to forbid it, but as I have experience as a governess and as Mary and I are both women and likely to observe and understand the concerns of the headmistress better than man, however well meaning, as a result, I propose that Mary and I have the discussion in regards to Ingrid’s attendance at the school.”
“You’ll have no argument from me,” Lestrade said, taking a messy gulp of his coffee. He shook his newspaper open, and that was the end of his remarks on the matter, for the headlines in London were already taking his full attention, as were the smaller crimes of the day pocketed away in side articles and half finished paragraphs full of sensation rather than facts.
“I’m not sure we shouldn’t have any input,” Mycroft added, wary. “We are, in actuality, her guardians while her mother is away and you have only known Ingrid for less than twenty-four hours.”
“Knowing Ingrid is not the issue,” Harriette continued. “It is my understanding as a person who was an educator that is at play here. Obviously, you can both follow up on her progress later, if it comes to that, and considering how intelligent and headstrong Ingrid is, I’m sure you will be receiving more than one summons in her schooling career.” Harriette nodded at Ingrid, who was ignoring the entire discussion of her problem self. “What do you think, Ingrid? Would you prefer if Mary and I discussed your problems at your school with Headmistress Yearwood?”
Ingrid shrugged. “A cat or dog going to talk to her would get the same result. She likes hearing her own voice more than listening, and if you fake attention long enough she rewards you by leaving you alone.”
“I believe that’s Ingrid’s version of a yes,” Mycroft said over his cup of steaming tea.
Lestrade shook his paper out and peered at a tiny article in the far right corner, but didn’t remark on it. “They want to talk to the Russian.”
Mycroft raised a brow. “Whatever do you mean?”
“The strange Russian maths teacher, the one that seems haunted by herself. It’s an odd business, I’ll give her that, but I’m positive it is nothing more than a simple matter of mass hysteria and our dear ladies are set to be disappointed.” Lestrade continued to read as he spoke, and Mycroft knew he was committing to memory every word on the page, every nuance and unspoken jibe and inference made against political opponents, every unspoken libelous throw away sentence on even the most mundane stories on the society pages. “She’s the talk of the village, other than the bakery owner, whom all the women seem to admire. Some of them want her fired. Can’t see why. Singular or doubled, she’s clearly very good at teaching mathematics. I imagine fractions are her specialty.”
It was a far brighter day than the one they enjoyed yesterday and Mycroft puttered about the grounds of the estate, occasionally seeing glimpses of Jack and Mr. Healey far off into the distance, paused over a shrubbery or remarking over bark. He wasn’t sure what this odd new hobby meant, but it was clear Jack was as passionate about it as he was about his studies as it seemed to tap into some new obsession that had completely sailed past both Mycroft and Lestrade’s notice. Ingrid had trudged off to school with her usual scowling, heavy gait, refusing outright a ride with Mr. Pinter as it was ‘too old fashioned for those snobs’ and not for the first time she asked when they were going to purchase a motor car, for she was a modern girl, and modern girls need to know how to drive, not feed horses.
Harriette and Mary had no such qualms against Mr. Pinter and his horse, however, and they rode up to the school a few hours later to have a meeting about Ingrid’s problems with the headmistress. Mycroft took up most of the morning going over his case notes, for the quarter session was coming up in a few weeks where he would have to take himself to Wales while the new Bailey courthouse was built. He wasn’t comfortable being in an unfamiliar courtroom, and he was loathe to let this disturbance in his usual routine affect his judgement in any way.
Sherlock was long awake by the time the ladies arrived back at the Holmes estate, and Mycroft, who had been in his father’s study, reams of case notes scattered around him, had not realized that the entire morning had passed and he had barely looked up nor stretched from his position at the massive, carved oak desk, the vast tomes of books on arbory and plant life bearing witness like the very trees they were made of, and similarly as patient. He heard his shoulders crack as he stretched, and he blinked his eyes as though newly discovering reality and stood up as Harriette and Mary excitedly entered the room.
“Such a glorious day!” Harriette exclaimed, grinning, her cheeks as healthy and rosy as a cherub’s, her open love for fresh air a decidedly American import. “Such beautiful flowers and sunshine all the way to our journey there! I’m shocked at how close the school is, and yet we can’t see it from the grounds. It must be the hills hiding it.”
“The Holmes clan have always valued their privacy.” Mycroft clasped his hands in front of him. “How was the meeting with the headmistress? What’s to be done about Ingrid?”
Harriette and Mary exchanged glances and Mycroft immediately felt his heart sink. “It’s not that she isn’t a good student,” Harriette said to him. “But she is simply a very strong personality and there’s little that can be done about that.”
“She’ll always have her own path,” Mary agreed. “Bitches usually do.”
“We did, however, sit in on the Russian teacher’s class and observed Ingrid in that habitat. She is a very attentive student and is reluctant to participate with her peers. They all seem to be afraid of her, perhaps because she does not sink into terror the way her classmates do.” Harriette hesitated. “I will say, however, that the teacher is a remarkable, well educated and young woman and at the same time...You can feel the air crackle around her. It’s like an energy charge, like you hear from the new light bulbs in some of the houses that have replaced their gaslight with electricity. It’s disconcerting.”
“We didn’t get a chance to talk to her, but the tension is there enough,” Mary added. “We watched her careful, and Harriette thinks I’m mad, but I swear, and I’m not the only one because I heard a young lass in pigtails gasp in surprise as well--I swear I saw a shadow of her right behind her, doing the exact same actions she was doing, only her hand was mimicking her putting lines of chalk on the board and not actually doing it. It was like seeing a mirror image made of smoke, and it was so very faint, dust in a sunbeam, like, and I have to say...I’ve seen a lot on our travels, we both have. It gave us shivers to our core.”
Mycroft was reluctant to express his annoyance, for it appeared that Lestrade was indeed correct, and the visit to the headmistress was solely to appease their curiosity about the Russian mathematics teacher and not about Ingrid’s problems at the school. Still, it did offer an insight into how the school was managing this issue, for surely that tension was bleeding out into the student populace and as it had infected both Mary and Harriette so easily, who was to say how much that ongoing fear was harming the student body at large and Ingrid was merely a scapegoat for not participating in it? No, he and Lestrade would most definitely have to visit Headmistress Yearwood themselves and as soon as possible, with no proxies in their place as Mary and Harriette had been, no matter how originally well meaning.
“I feel very sorry for this teacher,” Mycroft said, reflective. “I’m sure it must be a very difficult thing to manage the education of such impressionable young women when they are focussed more on your shadowy self than on the lesson at hand.”
“Ingrid has no problem at all with mathematics,” Harriette said, and it was a tad sharp which surprised Mycroft. “She’s rather ruthless when it comes to learning, your niece is, and she’s blunt and unpleasant about it. She stood up in that class today and corrected the teacher’s pythagorean calculations and was loud about it. She needs to be taught tact and you both need to encourage this lest she manage to anger the wrong person.”
“Tact is not a word in Ingrid’s vocabulary.” Mycroft sighed and turned back towards the arboretum, to the large window beside its entrance that gave a full view of the grounds beyond it. A line of trees showed movement. Jack and Mr. Healey were still deep in discussion over botany.
Sherlock stood there, his hands loose at his sides, his blue eyes transfixed upon the vista before him as though it were ready to puff up and absorb him into its soft mossy hills and valleys. He was still in his dressing gown though it was well after one o’clock in the afternoon. Dr. Watson would have been scandalized. He was on a stricter schedule at Holloway, up early and washed and dressed for the day by six in the morning every day of the week. Activities were heavily structured, he was to go for walks at ten in the morning, lunch at exactly noon, craft works and tea performed between two and four in the great room, dinner at five, music appreciation at seven, bed by eight. On Sundays the daily walk was swapped for hymns.
“She’s standing there, between those two trees,” Sherlock said.
Mycroft peered over his shoulder at the blank hollow where Sherlock was pointing.
“Mother, of course. She’s waving.”
Sherlock enthusiastically waved back.
Mycroft felt a shiver run through him. He couldn’t see what his brother could, and he was grateful for that, but it didn’t cure the feeling that, indeed, there was something watching them from those woods. He turned away, and left the study, the remaining three poised at the window, all of them happily waving at what he hoped was still an imaginary ghost.
Chapter 5: Boneyard School
“It is nearly nightfall. We shouldn’t have waited until so late.”
“If you are so worried about spooks and ghouls, you can take the pleasant walk back now before they come out to eat you as they dance in the twilight. You have your cane, you can fend them off.”
“Really, Gregory, you are an insufferable ass.”
Lestrade laughed, and Mycroft feigned a smile but he wasn’t comfortable in the encroaching dark, the memories of his childhood and his mother’s talk of monsters lurking in shadows collectively gathering in his consciousness and making his senses startle at every shining eye high up in the black branches of the trees, his shoulders flinching against every questioning hoot.
Lestrade had spent the majority of the day away from the Holmes estate yet again, and this time he did not reveal where he had gone or where he’d been and there were no tell tale signs of crumbs to suggest he’d visited the bakery again in town. Ingrid had come home and said not a word to anyone, nor did she partake of dinner, and instead went directly up to her room and locked her door. Betsy’s polite request that she join the rest of them for dinner was met with a mumbled excuse of ‘headache’ and Mrs. Healey, not to be refused her chance to offer service, had a pot of chamomile tea sent up which oddly enough, Ingrid did accept. Perhaps she really was feeling ill.
It was only after they had all finished their evening meal, a spectacular affair of game, pheasant, roasted potatoes and exotic legumes, that Lestrade announced he and Mycroft were to take a walk to the boarding school to meet with Headmistress Yearwood. Mycroft was taken aback, for he hadn’t planned such an excursion and Mr. Pinter was already in town gathering last minute supplies for Mrs. Healey’s kitchen. Lestrade scoffed at his lack of spontaneity, and waved off the suggestion from Harriette and Mary that they accompany them there again for they had established a good rapport with Headmistress Yearwood. Jack remained silent at the table, his eye constantly catching the empty spot where Ingrid was supposed to sit.
“”It only stands to reason to meet with her at an hour where she is free of the distractions of her students and administration of her building. She has told me so herself and wishes for us to see her tonight.”
Mycroft was perplexed. “How?”
“Really, Mycroft, how can you be a magistrate of your calibre and still be so dim?” Lestrade gestured over his shoulder and into the main foyer. “The telephone, of course! Modern facilities have modern things, Mycroft, your estate is not immune to this.”
Mycroft frowned. “I am not against progress. You know well that I’ve been researching the motor car.”
At this, Lestrade bristled. “A motor car! Stuff and nonsense, why do you want one of those dangerous wheeled coffins when you can use your two legs just as well.”
“We had one in Florida,” Mary said, wistful.
“It was such fun,” Harriette eagerly agreed. “The top down, the wind whipping our hair, and Mary looked so silly in that cap and those goggles! We ended up not wearing them after a while, they got in the way of being able to see.”
“An excellent vehicle for decapitation,” Lestrade said as he wolfed down a steaming potato. “No protection for the rider nor the passenger, and the speed is far too problematic. Should you become careless or there is a malfunction and you hit a tree, you will be ejected headfirst into whatever obstacle is in your path. Makes a right mess of people those accidents do. Other accounts of explosions and rolling motor cars (you are crushed like cracked wheat) and various maimings abound. No, I do not think this new fad will last. We have our feet and we have the trains--what more does a Londoner need? Besides,” he finished his potato. “What will Mr. Pinter do?”
“He and his carriage will happily retire,” Mycroft replied. “The mare is old and she cannot be replaced. That poor horse has been worked enough, it’s time for her to have a pleasant life on the grassy hills here and end her days chewing good hay and sunning her back. Mr. Pinter has made arrangements to move in with his sister who owns a small tobacco shop in the village--She has an apartment above the store. I have already discussed the matter with Mr. Pinter and he is very keen. He himself is on in age and has an apprentice driver for us already.”
“Yes, a young man named Harvey, I believe he’s Mr. Pinter’s nephew. He’s the one who got me the magazine subscriptions. His knowledge of motor cars is quite remarkable, and he’s been known to race them. He just got back a week ago from the Gordon Bennett Cup in Ireland and he’s suggested I put some investment into the Mercedes company.”
Despite his initial protests, the air was clean and invigorating, his lungs happy with the very slight chill afforded them and making them expand as though they were perfectly healthy. Mycroft couldn’t stop himself from taking a deep gulp of air as they walked, his gait slightly slower than Lestrade’s, his cane’s support more afterthought than need. The Holmes estate was well behind them within minutes, and they were soon on the main, pebbled path that led into the town and then sharply bended towards the boarding school.
“Feel that mist, Mycroft! It’s cool and pleasant and it wipes the grime from you as good as a hot shower!” He grinned over his shoulder, his handsome profile in the darkening twilight strong and positive. “You can’t get this without taking the time to appreciate it. Admit it, Mycroft, you can’t do half the walking you like with the way London’s muck clogs up your lungs,”
That initial invigorating sensation was short lived the longer they walked, and what started as pleasant was now turning into a tired trudge. He was now feeling damp and cold and not at all enjoying the ache in his bones or the way his cane stumbled over hidden rocks on the poorly maintained road, Mycroft bit his tongue and instead brought up a far more serious and urgent topic. “I think we should send Ingrid to a finishing school at the end of her semester. She will have completed her final year of formal schooling in December.”
Lestrade nodded in agreement. “I can’t see anything wrong with sending her off to Switzerland to polish off those rough edges all over her. Do be warned, however, I think her independent streak is a tad overdeveloped and I’m not sure that it will be worth the expense.”
“We must try, Gregory.”
“I do agree.”
He reached behind and gave Mycroft’s hand a gentle squeeze and it was as though an electric bolt shot through him at the simple touch. He pulled away lest the sudden rush of affection overtook them both and they did something publicly reckless. How he hated this! Fields upon fields of nothing but sleepy sheep and yet there was no guarantee there wasn’t a farmer or his helper somewhere out there who would be scandalized by the vision of two men in an overly friendly embrace. The news would reach the pub and by morning there would be hordes with pitchforks and flaming logs and a drunken priest blearily asking what sort of perversion did they think they were up to? Bath and its surrounding villages wasn’t London, you know. All that Roman soldier diddly doo was over with ages ago.
“I will leave our connecting door ajar tonight,” Mycroft whispered, but Lestrade didn’t answer him.
The Bathroyal Society Of Ladies Boarding Academy suddenly loomed into view, casting an eerie pall upon the dimmed path before it. It was hardly inviting during the day and now, with evening encroaching upon it with clawing eagerness it squatted upon the landscape like a gothic monolith. The Old Bailey didn’t have this dreaded impact, and Mycroft often wondered how it was that young women wouldn’t run from the place screaming in terror, and instead seemed to quickly mold within it, cheerful and uninhibited by the oppressive architecture. Perhaps he should give Ingrid more credit for her morose attitude and ascribe it to a deeper empathy that had her understanding the gallows she had to visit every day.
“Headmistress Yearwood said we are to use the front door, it’s unlocked at night in case of fire.” Lestrade’s steps were bold as he approached the central tower. He paused, looking over his shoulder at a very reluctant Mycroft. “You see, this is the problem. You very rarely want to come here and you act like the place has a ghost in every window. Then you wonder why Ingrid’s so sullen. She does it on purpose to feed into your fear so that when you do come here you are overcome with its gothic melancholy and feel revulsion by the very view of the bricks. It’s a clever tactic, making you avoid checking up on her antics.”
Mycroft wasn’t sure about Lestrade’s reasoning, but the effect of the environment on him was palpable and only increased when Lestrade opened the large, heavy doors leading into the school. As it was dusk, there was no happy chatter amongst the female students who were already locked away in their rooms or in study halls, a strict ‘Quiet Enforced After Five P.M.’ sign in prominence near the entrance of what one presumed was a large reference library. They ascended a curved, polished staircase of deep red oak, with Mycroft’s cane adding a further echo upon the empty space which led to a vast hall that felt more like a portal into infinity than access to classrooms. Headmistress Yearwood’s office was the end of that hall, the small glow of a gaslight flickering out from the open door like a beckoning to a ghostly world.
This morose, dark feeling instantly disintegrated, however, when they met with the sparkling smile and eager handshake of Headmistress Yearwood. “How good of you to come! I’ve made tea for us to enjoy, lavender of course, due to the lateness of the day, with an infusion of nettle. Our health sciences teacher insists it is best for nightly digestion. Please, please, have a seat! I am so eager to give you my thanks!”
Mycroft and Lestrade exchanged confused glances as they obliged Miss Yearwood. A quick visual scan of her office betrayed a woman in love with books and knowledge and very keen on the formation of young minds. There was a signed photographic portrait of Louise Duncan on the wall near the window, and a painting of Joan Of Arc on the opposite side. She appeared to be fighting a fiery dragon.
“I have been arguing for a drama program for this school for quite some time, and I am thrilled that your influence has brought to us two very talented women in the field of the performing arts! Their resume is quite impressive--Carnegie Hall and Broadway! And as they come with the recommendation of the Holmes family, I am confident in their abilities to shape young minds and encourage a creative spirit within my girls. How very exciting this will be! I’ve already started reworking the curriculum to coincide with the English department’s Shakespeare studies and am confident we can have an excellent production of ‘Antony And Cleopatra’ by December, for the Christmas annual.”
Mycroft raised his brows in alarm, for neither Mary nor Harriette had told them of this development. He looked to Lestrade, who coughed in his fist.
“I’m sorry, Headmistress, but we are actually here to discuss a more pressing matter. That of Ingrid.” Then, guiltily clearing his throat. “That is, her mathematics teacher, specifically and Ingrid’s description of her. There’s considerable distraction concerning her...Ghostly appearances.”
Oh, no. He was not! Mycroft stared at Lestrade, aghast, his anger further fuelled when his companion refused to meet his shocked glare.
“It’s more of a scientific phenomenon I’m trying to investigate,” Lestrade continued. “I have a feeling what’s been experienced is more about mass hysteria and I would like to put that theory to the test. If you would permit it, of course…”
“*I* am here to talk about Ingrid’s progress,” Mycroft hastily interjected, the heel of his cane hitting the thick wooden floor with the might of a gavel. “I understand she is no longer permitted to remain boarding here due to her poor relationships with her peers. I would like to see how we can alleviate that behaviour.”
Headmistress Yearwood frowned, her eyes darting from Lestrade to Mycroft, then back again, unsure of which massive topic to tackle first. She decided to stay on her original point. “The girls here have a very active imagination and have nowhere to put it. Thus, our poor Miss Stanislav has suffered the burden of it. I do agree it is hysteria of a type, Mr. Lestrade, but my girls are not unintelligent nor unresponsive to the varieties of science. Much of what is happening is nothing more than silly rumours spread by bored girls who aren’t keen on mathematics and are doing their best to distract themselves and others from the tasks at hand.” Her friendly demeanor was now considerably more forced. “As it stands, I find Ingrid to be a more positive influence in that regard as she is more interested in study than she is in Miss Stanislav’s apparent condition. However, that being said, I must also warn that Ingrid also possesses a rather fiery temper and is known to be overtly independent to the point of being a reactionary. Her influence on the younger girls is obvious, they look up to her and her rude comments and abrupt manner are not befitting young women who are set to be released upon the world in a short period of time.”
She sighed, and Mycroft caught the frustration in it. HIs curiosity was further peaked. “So, the problem is that Ingrid is too independent of thought?”
He caught the image of Joan of Arc slaying a dragon in the corner of his eye and Yearwood did not miss it.
“She is frank, bold, refuses to bend in her opinions, can be confrontational and ferocious in her intellect.” Yearwood sighed, and brought her cup of lavender and nettle tea to her lips as though to give herself additional courage. “The bald facts are I cannot send girls out into the world who will be impossible to marry off. That is the goal of most of the girls in this school and certainly the plan of their parents. Marry them off to wealthy men and maybe they can pursue their intellects on the side while producing more of their clan. If there are a slew of girls graduating from here who terrify men, our reputation as a school of respectable education will be tarnished.” Yearwood took another long, reflective sip. “The thing is, I do appreciate girls like Ingrid, for I was one of them myself, and I do believe she has great things to offer the world when she is finished here. I understand her mother is a highly educated eccentric and I have been able to use that excuse to keep her here regardless of the complaints of other parents.”
“Complaints?” Lestrade asked. “About what, specifically? If there is a formal complaint, why weren’t we informed?”
“I was approached by several mothers of the girls in this school that Ingrid had brought a book, a hand written translation from the Japanese, entitled ‘This Scheming World’. In it, there are considerable revolutionary ideas pertaining to poverty, indebtedness and the consequences of it and the ruling class is depicted in very harsh light. There are also some rather gruesome sexual overtones. I myself found it all rather interesting, but as she had written out copies of some of the stories for her fellow classmates who began to look upon it like a form of religion, and began questioning their own parents about these topics, it was deemed inappropriate and I was forced to censor the work. Ingrid was livid and marched, with a group of girls, into this office with the argument that we cannot be encouraging education if we refuse to allow in other worldly perspectives. I had to--rather reluctantly--remind her that we are an English institution and as such our perspective must remain rooted in English mores.”
Lestrade was suddenly reddened at this information and well he should be, Mycroft thought, for this entire debacle was his fault. He’d spent a considerable amount of his youth in Japan and was currently in the process of translating several books he had brought home from that personal history, some of which were highly erotic works depicting various levels of homosexual attractions and were a source of amusement for them both on quiet nights. He’d clearly been careless in his hobby and Ingrid had taken full advantage of it.
“The parents insisted she be expelled, but as I don’t agree that this is a wise decision--Ingrid is a very intelligent young woman--I proposed her influence be muted by her only attending during the day and the parents, very reluctantly I may add, agreed to these terms.”
“How kind of them,” Mycroft tersely replied.
“Yes, I agree. As a magistrate of the Queen’s court, I imagine you are quite relieved to be absolved of any inquiry, Mr. Holmes, as the tread upon one’s privacy can be quite severe. As you are both men of the law, one of its enforcement, and one of its execution, I had decided that schoolgirl antics were not worthy of your time and saw to the matter as I saw fit.”
“We do appreciate your initiative, Miss Yearwood,” Lestrade added.
“Thank you, Mr. Lestrade. I know very well that you are already a busy man here in town, as Mr. Hoot has been murdered.” She grimaced and visibly shivered. “Such an oaf of a man! I know one of his eldest daughters, Louise, and though she is a very intelligent girl her poverty has rendered her fit for little more than service in this life. I have donated clothes to her and her siblings when I can, though I have to be sure to keep wool coats on a secreted hook near the back main entrance otherwise her father, Mr. Hoot, would steal them and sell them rather than see the charity of keeping his children warm.”
Lestrade’s interest was sudden, and he turned on Headmistress Yearwood like a cat with a live fish. “You knew him? And his family?”
Headmistress Yearwood raised a brow. “It is a small village, Mr. Lestrade, we are not Bath proper, we are a tiny hamlet away from it. There are people here who haven’t moved from this location in six generations. And if you ask anyone, they will tell you that Mr. Hoot was a drunkard who took from his family rather than providing for it, and that kind of behaviour has never sat well with anyone in this village.” Her lips were thin and pursed. “As I am sure you will be visiting that family again, if you could take their wool coats to them it would be appreciated. The weather is warm enough now that it is summer, but the cold and damp will be back with a vengeance before too long and there is no point waiting for another child to die of pneumonia.”
Lestrade frowned at this. “I did not hear of a child’s death in my interviews.”
Headmistress Yearwood was suddenly flustered at this. “It was in March, the middle boy, Thomas. He had to fetch firewood as he was the only one left to tend to their shack. Louise had work sweeping for some of the local shops in town and Mrs. Hoot was scrubbing pots for Mayor Littlebum’s household. That left Thomas, who was ten years old, to tend to the smaller children and to make sure the fire was stoked. He had no coat, as I mentioned, and had to fetch firewood from nearly a mile away wearing nothing but a threadbare cotton shirt and some tattered wool pants. He’d already lost some toes to frostbite and he had oversized galoshes on that let more snow in than kept it out. He became ill not long after, and he died at the end of April.”
She sighed, and the sadness she felt over the whole situation was genuine. Headmistress Yearwood is, at her core, a kind woman, Mycroft thought. He would be sure to offer the school a sizable donation in the future.
“Who told you his fate?” Lestrade asked.
“His younger sister, Louise, of course. She was still coming here to get her coat. She feels a great deal of guilt over not having been here to pick up her brother’s for him--You can see their little shack from my office window, it’s that grey bump on the horizon just past that mossy hill. Louise told me he wouldn’t come here himself as he ‘Didn’t think it proper a young man should intrude upon ladies’. Can you believe it?” Headmistress Yearwood’s eyes misted with tears. “That poor child. He would have made quite the gentleman despite his circumstances. What a terrible loss.”
Mycroft looked out the small window, decorated with a curve of stained glass above it that depicted a collection of wheat and flowers. The sun was sinking ever lower on the horizon and they would be travelling home in the dark, as he had feared. The tiny black shack was like a piece of driftwood on a sea of rolling hills, the tiny sliver of smoke out of its chimney the only indication that it could be a home. He wondered not for the first time how some people could have so much in this world, people like himself, while others eked out an existence that was barely above animal in nature. Surely a fox den had more room and resources than that ramshackle little hovel that housed far too many children and a threadbare wife?
Lestrade had out his pad and pen and began scribbling on it furiously. “I must ask you, Miss Yearwood, did you witness anything the previous night that would be considered out of the ordinary? It does not matter how small the detail is, any information is worthwhile. Were you sitting here, for instance, as is your habit, looking upon that little shack on the horizon.” Lestrade raised his head and met her wide and solid gaze. “What did you see?”
She was quiet for a long moment. When she did speak her jaw was set tight, and Mycroft shrank a little from her voice, for he’d had experience in his youth with such disciplinarians and her forcefulness was not forgotten by his subconscious. “I saw nothing, Mr. Lestrade. Nothing at all. Now, it is getting late and I still have much paperwork to do as well as consider several new admissions. Thank you for your time, gentlemen.” She stood up and held out her hand to shake both of theirs in turn. Her grip was strong and unbending and Lestrade took obvious note of it. His notepad and pen were already tucked back into his jacket pocket, a strange prop as he rarely had to make such notes, his mind sharp enough to go over every detail solely by memory.
“Thank you for seeing us, Headmistress,” Mycroft added. His hand felt sore after her firm shaking of it and he clutched his cane a little too tightly. “We will see ourselves out.”
He was grateful when they finally made it into the open air, and out of the building, its oppressive weight instantly lifted from his lungs, only for a new threat, that one of darkness, permeating their trip home. Lestrade tutted at his reluctance and pulled out from his jacket pocket the very real reason why he had waited until it was late to both have that meeting and travel back. He weighed the strange, small cylinder in his hand with a sense of both wonder and pride. “I picked this up in London before we came out here, and I’ve been dying to try it out. It’s like a handheld torch and it gives you flashes of light that fully illuminate the darkness. It runs on batteries and uses electricity.”
This was of little comfort to Mycroft as the device couldn’t be used continuously, like a lamp, and they still had to course through the dark path, his cane picking over the rocks and twigs that would trip him up should he take a misstep. Lestrade, however, was cheerful and undaunted, the flashlight sending off a powerful blast of light at intervals that did more to blind him than it did to offer illumination of their path. They caught the terrified image of a deer before it leapt off into the underbrush. Mycroft gripped Lestrade’s arm for support, and though his steps were uneasy he had to admit the cover of darkness was a welcome cloak over this small affection, enough for Lestrade to even steal a kiss on his forehead, his lips cool and pleasant upon his brow.
“I believe Headmistress Yearwood knows much more than she is letting on.” Mycroft clasped his hand in Lestrade’s and leaned further on him as they walked. The darkness was not so overpowering now, and Lestrade had his flashlight if it became too oppressive. “Surely she saw something that night? I am confident she looks out that little window and sees every movement in that shack and knows their routine better than the Hoot family does.”
“I agree. She has a vested interest in them, whether from curiosity or genuine charity, I’m not yet sure. I’ll have to talk to the eldest daughter again, she never mentioned that she was working, nor did she mention her brother Thomas’s death. The latter is a serious omission, I think.”
“It points to motive, dear Mycroft. Do catch up.”
They walked into a patch of black forest and then, with a sudden swoop a hungry owl would envy, Lestrade wrapped his arms around Mycroft’s shoulders and pushed him back hard against a thick oak tree. Without warning he pressed his lips with ardent fervor onto Mycroft’s and took a long and satisfying plunge into his mouth, leaving Mycroft gasping when he was finally released.
“We are outside.”
“In the dark. Where no one can see us.”
“It is a risk, Gregory.”
“No risk but the present.” He kissed him again and a shot of desire coursed through Mycroft, making him melt at the touch, his can dropped as his hands hungrily searched for Lestrade’s belt, making quick work of buttons, his long, cool fingers finding that hot shaft within the confines of cotton. Lestrade made likewise work of Mycroft, until they were both exposed, Lestrade’s hot hand strong and rough on both their cocks, pumping them together with a pressure that made Mycroft choke on his pleasured cry out.
Oh how wonderful it was to have him, to have this touch on those forbidden places that left him tense and excited, his entire body singing from the pleasure of it! They had been forced to wait for so long that the urgency of their love made the intimacy end all too abruptly, the starvation of that affection too much to bear now that it was being sated. Mycroft felt the hot stickiness of Lestrade’s spent desire on his stomach and his cock, which likewise twitched and erupted in turn, every muscle in his body taut in ecstasy as he loudly cried out.
Lestrade hushed him with another kiss, more tender and not as primal as that first one, and smiled into Mycroft’s panting mouth.
“Desperation has made me impatient,” Lestrade laughed.
“Sleep with me tonight, Gregory,” Mycroft implored him. “Please. I will leave the door unlocked, no one will know…”
“The servants always know, there’s no secrets among them, it’s the very nature of their work.” Still, he nuzzled into Mycroft’s neck as he pulled his pants back up and began reassembling himself. “I can share a few hours. But I won’t fall asleep, we can’t risk it. I’ll wait until you slumber off and then I’ll go back to my room.”
Mycroft nodded and, using a handkerchief, cleaned himself up before putting his trousers back into their perfect placement, all manner of evidence smartly erased. He picked up his dropped cane and they walked together arm in arm back upon the path, two fine gentlemen enjoying an evening ramble.
Darkness had overtaken the Holmes estate as they approached it, the rolling hills that surrounded the property had the appearance of woollen blankets strewn upon the horizon and offering a sleepy comfort. Lestrade broke the spell by turning on the flashlight and bringing the estate into a brilliant light which only lasted for a few seconds before the battery finally dimmed it, leaving them in darkness once again. In that brief illumination Mycroft could see the crumbling brick on the far right wall, the broken window on the third floor and the cracking eavestrough along the far side of the roof, where the rain hit it most. The upkeep of the estate was becoming more costly as the years wore on, and this combined with the servants being hard to come by and the few regular inhabitants there was little incentive to keep the estate in the Holmes clan for much longer. It was unlikely that Jack would wish to inherit it, less so Ingrid, and certainly the mainstays of the house, Mr and Mrs. Healey and Mr. Pinter, were set to retire in a short time. The property itself was too vast to manage and would do better as proper farmland. He would give the place a few more years, five at the most, and then, in clear conscience, he would list it for sale.
The tranquility of the evening was broken by the sudden screaming howls coming from Sherlock’s bedroom, and as Lestrade and Mycroft entered the front door (no servants, of course, they retired early at night as per Mrs. Healey’s schedule and fires were already lit in the hearths of the occupied rooms by the end of supper) they quietly hung up their coats and proceeded to walk up the stairs, the sound of Sherlock’s panic a common enough occurrence during their life with him that such evening outbursts were of little shock to them. Sherlock met them at the top of the stairs, his hair wild and matted from sleep, his muslin nightshirt hanging loose around his knees and his shoulders, giving him the sloppy appearance of a distressed patient. Harriette and Mary were peeking out of their rooms with small candle lamps in their hands, the shadows of their fearful forms making monsters along the mostly bare hallway walls.
“She’s out there! She’s been shrieking in the dark!” Sherlock’s eyes were wild and wide with terror. “She won’t rest, Mycroft! She’s come to take us into her grave!”
Mycroft sighed and took Sherlock gently by his elbow, directing him back to his room. “We’ve talked about this, Sherlock. Mother died a long time ago, she is no longer with us, not even in spirit. This is part of your condition, she is not really here.”
“But she is! You can feel her, I know you can!” Sherlock broke from him and shook off any attempt for redirection. He was strong, and from the way he was pacing back and forth in front of them, Mycroft knew that he was spiralling further and further into his delusion, the risk of violence ready to erupt with any misstep.
“I fear that you may have had a nightmare,” Mycroft assured him. “Please, Sherlock, go back to bed and we will discuss the matter in the morning…”
“You understand nothing! She is here and she’s brought her monsters with her! The faeries are rotten, Mycroft, they’ve infected you!”
A silver glint caught Mycroft’s eye and it was Mary who knew what it was before he realized it.
“No! Sherlock, put down the knife!”
But the cry was met with madness, for Sherlock brandished the small but sharp paring knife above his head, cutting into the air above him as though slicing through invisible foes, faerie monsters that only his sick mind could see. “I’ll not have them infect us! They must be destroyed! We must banish them all, and be free of them forever! They can’t have you, my dear brother! They can’t!”
He did not see the strike when it came, nor did he even feel it. There was a moment of surprise as he staggered back, the hilt of the paring knife jutting from his shoulder at a strange angle. He reached up to pull it out, only to be stopped by Lestrade, who also braced himself behind him, preventing him from falling backwards down the large oak stairs. He felt no pain, just a strange burning sensation in his shoulder that became worse if he tried to move his arm. His fingers tingled as he tried to flex them.
Sherlock stood at the top of the stairs, his eyes as wild as any lunatic asylum madman’s, his mouth twisted into so tortured a grimace it was as if the knife had been plunged into himself and not into his brother. He violently shook where he stood, and it was Harriette who took him over, guiding him gently back to his room which he did without complaint or even real awareness of where he was or the terrible thing he had done.
Lestrade had him on the floor of the hallway now, and something hot and wet was pooling against his back, the stink of iron thick in the air around him. Mary was busy at work tending to his injury, her chatter going on about ‘knowing certain aspects of first aid thanks to their time in America’ and how she had been trained by militant suffragettes who were hiding out in Chicago. Jack’s voice came into the mix, and he took over where Mary had started, with Ingrid helping him, the knife cradled in strips of torn white sheets that were quickly staining into a deep read. He heard the commotion as though from a far distance, the actions happening to his body and around him shrouded in mental fog.
He didn’t know when he’d been taken to his bed. He wasn’t aware how the knife had left his shoulder, though there was a suspicion it was Jack, who had removed it and cleaned the wound, remarking that it hadn’t cut muscle, only nicked it, which was a miracle, and that the sting of iodine was necessary to prevent infection. Mycroft could only feel an ache and burning sensation that became worse until Jack insisted he take a small dose of morphine, which in effect knocked him out of this world completely within minutes of its administering.
He awoke from the sharp pain in his shoulder in the middle of the night, Lestrade snoring on the pillow close beside his own, heedless of the servant’s gossip should they be discovered in the morning.
Chapter 6: Standing Room Only
The morning breakfast table was deathly quiet, and it was up to Mycroft to dispel the ill feeling now covering the Holmes Estate like a funeral pall. “I am perfectly fine,” he said, as he lifted his cup of tea with his left hand to his lips, the effort a bit more strained as it wasn’t his dominant right. Some tea slopped over the side and his lips captured it quickly, slurping more loudly than was polite. Mary and Harriette remained subdued, while Jack and Ingrid were oddly animated over the whole affair, the details of his injuries now a subject of excited exploration.
“Luckily the blade was so thin it was able to slide between the omohyoid muscle and the cervical fascia and cause a fairly superficial wound that will heal very quickly, in my estimation. A one in a million chance, really, and quite a narrow breach of your throat which would have proved fatal had the blade cut into your carotid artery. A narrow miss, for sure! That was quite the tricky business taking that knife out, I had to keep my hands as steady as a statue! It’s a good thing Mrs. Healey keeps her knives well sharpened as well, a dull blade injury like that would have torn at the muscle and caused more damage, as it is, it’s like a surgical cut and there’s minimal harm done. Pass the scones, Ingrid, if you don’t mind.”
Mycroft couldn’t stop himself from constantly glancing at Sherlock’s empty chair, an action that made Lestrade’s dark, brooding expression deepen. He hadn’t left their bed, and ignored the wide eyes of Betsy who had gone into Mycroft’s room in the morning to stoke awake the fire in the hearth and prepare their suits for pressing and brushing before returning them. She’d done her work and scurried out as quickly as a frightened mouse, and no doubt would be chittering away in the kitchen about what she had witnessed.
So much for discretion.
Jack slathered butter onto his scone and then added a healthy amount of runny strawberry jam. “It’s really fascinating the way muscle heals as well, it will literally bind itself back together if the cuts aren’t too wide and ragged. There will be some stiffness in your neck as a result, of course, but that can be cured with some good stretching exercises once the initial wound has healed. That way the muscle won’t atrophy and scar tissue won’t impede further movement.”
“There wasn’t much blood,” Ingrid observed, shrugging over the memory. “I mean yes, it was more than a simple cut, of course, but I was shocked he didn’t spill out more. Once you had the knife out and quickly stitched him up it was all over, we only had to use one sheet to mop it all up.”
Jack nodded and quickly finished his wolfed down scone. “Speed is of the essence in surgery, as is cleanliness. Mrs. Hudson always says so.”
“I’ve sent a telegram to Dr. Watson,” Mycroft quietly said to Lestrade, who ignored the newspaper pressed and neatly folded on the table beside his tea. “He has already replied, he is taking the first train to Bath this morning and should be here by late afternoon. Mr. Pinter knows the train’s schedule and he will be picking him up.”
“I don’t know why you didn’t just call him on the telephone,” Lestrade tersely replied. A small stack of letters lay beside Mycroft, untouched and Lestrade gestured to them. “I take it you’ve gotten notice about when and where you’ll be doing your quarter sessions. Considering the mess of the Old Bailey right now as they demolish it, you’ll be spread between Guildhall and Wales, not the best way to enjoy your summer respite.”
“One that will be cut short,” Mycroft agreed. He held the letter up to his forehead. “My third eye tells me that I shall be travelling extensively in August.”
“You shouldn’t joke of such things,” Mary admonished him. “That third eye is real, Harriette and I have seen evidence of its use ourselves.”
“If you don’t mind, Mary, I am not so enamoured with the concepts of the metaphysical at present, seeing as how their apparent manifestations are responsible for my current condition. If you have had such an incredible experience, I suggest you see its result, sitting here wrapped in bandages before you. Please, no more talk of spooks and knocks, it’s clearly done its damage.” He opened the letter with his opener and shook out the contents. “Ah, yes. A deduction you would be proud of, Gregory. I shall be doing much of my actual work as a judge in the quarter sessions in Wales throughout August and into September to accommodate the backlog of cases due to the Old Bailey’s demolition.”
Lestrade had more pressing issues on his mind. “Is Dr. Watson taking Sherlock back to Holloway?”
“I don’t know.”
“I suggest he does and to be more careful in his recommendations for taking Sherlock out of his institution. He has become dangerous and I won’t tolerate his continued presence here.”
Mycroft was crestfallen. “Gregory, he is not responsible for what he did, he genuinely thought I was being attacked. If you’d known my mother…”
“I know your brother!” Lestrade pounded his fist on the table, sending the cutlery dancing. A terrible silence overtook the breakfast room, but Lestrade did not relax his fist. He measured the tension of everyone at the table before continuing. “He could have killed you. Jack outlined to you exactly how.”
It was impossible to argue against this, and an unhealthy silence continued in the wake of Lestrade’s outburst. “I move that we wait on Dr. Watson’s analysis.”
“You are not in a court of law here, Mycroft, and your ruling means nothing to me if it results in any risk to your health. “
Harriette began to weep. She pushed away her plate and caged her grief with her long, slender fingers, a concerned Mary rubbing her back. “I’m afraid Mr. Holmes is right and this is all our fault. We never should have indulged him his fantasy of faeries in the wood, it only cemented his delusions further. All of our talk of our experiences in America and our interest in the spirit realm have been very harmful, and I can’t apologize to you both enough--To think he could have killed you! You, who have been so kind and so giving to both of us who were so close to ruin!”
Unable to control her sorrow, Harriette ran from the breakfast room before Mycroft could offer a counter argument, Mary in hot pursuit of her friend. The table now had three empty chairs and Mycroft was left with a strange sense of responsibility for it. “It is no one’s fault what a madman perceives,” he said to their empty spots, but it was only Jack and Ingrid who properly heard him and his attempt at apology.
“Blaming our dear chosen sisters for your brother’s actions is an incredible cruelty, Mycroft.”
Mycroft bit his tongue. “I am aware of this, Gregory. I will pursue them and apologize after breakfast, when the mood is calmer. I’m afraid all of our emotions are running away with us this morning.”
“Speak for yourself, I’m perfectly fine.” Lestrade shook out his newspaper and began to read. He suddenly flushed red in the face and bolted from his chair. “The goddamned cheek of them! I’ll have at them, by God! The nerve! The bloody, ridiculous *nerve*!”
Confused, Mycroft picked up the paper, a local rag that was tucked into the London Gazette. There, on the front page, was the black and white story of a murder, and not, oddly enough, of Mr. Hoot.
“What is it?” Jack asked, noting Mycroft’s sudden pallor.
Mycroft looked up from the paper, still terribly confused. “There’s been another murder.”
“You’re goddamned right there has and that damned Littlebum didn’t tell me about it! He’s got his local coppers on the case--Useless, the lot of them! What makes him think he doesn’t need my expertise? For God’s sake, murder is hardly jurisdictional, as a London inspector already involved in the case he can’t shut me out of a development like that! I’m a pivotal part of the investigation! What the devil is that idiot thinking?”
“Not much if he’s shunting you out of the case,” Jack remarked. Jack had finished his scone and was now gulping down a sugary, milky tea. “Are you going to the village morgue, wherever that is? I can come with you to investigate the body if you like.”
Lestrade hesitated over the offer, which Mycroft found very strange. He gave Jack a decided once over, picking his words overly carefully. “No. I’ll go alone. You can stay here and make sure Mycroft is all right and keep Sherlock at bay until Dr. Watson arrives. I’ve had Mrs. Healey lock Sherlock’s bedroom door, but you know he has a habit of climbing out of windows.” He stormed into the front foyer and donned his wool coat and bowler hat, still muttering curses at Mayor Littlebum. “I’ve no idea when I’ll be back. Tell Dr. Watson to not make any major decisions about Sherlock without me here, I would prefer to add an unbiased opinion on the matter of his future care.”
“You are hardly unbiased!” Mycroft furiously shouted at him. But Lestrade was already gone.
Dr. Watson had gained a considerable amount of weight, possibly in part due to his new love, his motor car, which he had driven up from London rather than taking the train and leaving Mr. Pinter rather stranded and confused at the Bath rail station. He hadn’t informed them of this new development, much to Mycroft’s annoyance, but then he supposed one shouldn’t expect much else from Dr. Watson, who had a habit of throwing his great girth around along with his considerable ego. He was now stuffed quite firmly into a settee by the breakfast room window, his mighty red paws wrapped around a large butter tart with huge bites taken out of it. He brushed the white crumbs from his waistcoat in a distracted fashion as he talked. He had a battered notebook on the windowsill beside him, its contents bookmarked with several pieces of torn paper, a pencil taped to its spine.
“I have been the unfortunate bearer of public grief,” he began. He nudged at the notebook with a pudgy finger and sighed heavily over it. “I have done my best to be rid of the hero that your brother partially created, even going so far as to have thrown him over a cliff to be done with him forever. I was keen to get back to my non fiction works on the new methodologies in psychiatry, including the prospect of tampering with the frontal and parietal lobes, as per Puusepp’s research, as a means of curing those with severe, violent delusions, such as your brother, who I believe would make an excellent case study. I have little confidence in the butchery of Burckhardt, of course, for though he claimed success, the six patients whose brains he dug a trench into were not cured of their mental illness, but were instead simply physically maimed.” He made quick work of the rest of the large butter tart and wiped at his crumb laden moustache with a napkin. “I had named the work ‘The Final Problem’ for a reason, but sadly the public imagination refuses to let that golem of mine go, and there is very little by way of income on my academic papers. I’m afraid I may have to resurrect the bloody know-all and give him further adventures if only to ensure my retirement funds are adequate. It’s a sad state of the world when a man’s scientific breakthroughs that are meant to benefit all of humanity are ignored for the sake of a morphine addict's tiresome mysteries. I don’t hate him, of course, but my dislike for him is becoming more pronounced with every tome, and I wish someone else would put pen to paper to waste time on him instead of me.” He sighed, the weight of an imaginary adversary and career killer squashing even his great bulk. “I have several stories already outlined, the mysteries all so complex and convoluted they very much read as though they have been written by a madman. The nagging for his return has reached its peak and my creative hand is forced, with great apology to you and Inspector Lestrade, of course. After the success of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, the pressure is on and I have two publishers on two continents--one American and one English--vying to have them simultaneously thrust upon the public by the next year. I do, apologise, Mycroft, for his return will no doubt bring with it more attention upon your duties as a judge of the Assizes, and unwanted scrutiny.”
The apology was hollow, in Mycroft’s opinion, for Dr. Watson had made a handsome sum over the years using Sherlock’s delusions as the basis for his mystery stories. It wasn’t so much that he stole his patient’s convoluted plots, but he had used their real names and then added insult by ‘changing their core characteristics’ which fashioned Mycroft as a cold, calculating obese man content to solve world problems through study and Lestrade as a bungling, cockney oaf, barely fitting the description of a good police inspector. Mrs. Hudson was not at all happy to be reduced to a tutting landlady and housekeeper, and Dr. Watson, having put himself in the works, was of course the level headed point of view who hung around Sherlock’s genius like a fascinated puppy.
They had a blissful five years of freedom from The Strand’s best selling series, save for the novel based on the Holmes estate, and they had thought this was finally the end of it. Mycroft tried desperately to not let his annoyance at the matter show. He couldn’t outwardly complain as Sherlock’s complicated mental illness was managed by Dr. Watson at Holloway free of charge, as was his attention to Sherlock’s needs which was exemplary.
“This violence is an unfortunate event,” Dr. Watson said, and he groaned as he stood up and approached Mycroft, his great stomach heaving in protest. He waddled to where Mycroft uncomfortably sat and peeled back the bandaging that Ingrid had so expertly done that morning. “Jack did an excellent job stitching you up. That boy already has the skill of a surgeon. There will be stiffness in the shoulder and that part of your neck for quite some time and it’s unlikely you will be able to lift your arm higher than your waist for a month as it heals, though I do recommend the stretching exercises as early as a week from now, to prevent atrophy.” He redid the bandage, hiding the ugly, near fatal line from view. Dr. Watson was pensive, his usually confident demeanor taking on a dark turn. “He must be monitored very carefully, these violent tendencies are not usually without a root cause.”
Mycroft nodded and the stitches in his neck pulled taught at the effort, making him hiss in pain. He instinctively pressed his palm against the small wad of cotton. “The estate always reminds him of Mother. She was ill as he was, you know.”
Dr. Watson grunted an agreement. “Much as Inspector Lestrade will be against it, I do not believe it wise to bring Sherlock back to Holloway in his present state. He will end up in restraints for a considerable amount of time and when the shock of what he has done to you finally reaches him he will be inconsolable and I fear he will descend into a catatonic state. I propose that I remain here at the estate for at least the next two weeks, giving him twenty-four hour care and observation for the entire duration.”
Mycroft raised a brow. “You’ll have a hard time convincing Gregory that this is wise.”
“I appreciate his concern, and I do not take this enterprise lightly. Sherlock did nearly kill you. Thus, your safety and the safety of everyone in this household is now my full concern. He is not to spend one minute on his own, unless he is locked in his room.” Dr. Watson patted his round stomach and gave Mycroft a chubby smile. “So...Shall we visit our patient, then?”
Mycroft nervously agreed and gathered up his cane, only to have Dr. Watson place a meaty hand on his good shoulder, holding him back. “When I say ‘we’ I mean myself. Force of habit, my good man. I think it best you remain as far from Sherlock as possible for the time being, at least until I can determine if he is still of the belief that you are haunted by these faerie creatures.” He glanced around him, tapping his fingers on his girth, his ring hitting the buttons of his waistcoat. “And where is Mr. Lestrade? Enjoying the hills and fields is he? I saw the box from that bakery in town in one of the servant’s hands when I came in, excellent pastries I may add.”
“He’s investigating another murder.”
Dr. Watson huffed at this. “‘Another’ murder?”
“There have been two in the village, as of this morning. He left after reading the paper to continue his investigation.”
“My, my, no rest for the wicked nor for the men who pursue them!” He jovially patted Mycroft’s shoulder. “Mr. Pinter has offered to stand guard while I do my primary assessment of Sherlock. He’s told me you are interested in motor cars--You should definitely go out and check over my lovely little Ford Model A, it’s been a godsend. Drove all the way here from London and only had to stop sixteen times. It’s a miracle of convenience for daily travel, I can tell you that!”
“I will be sure to.”
With that, Dr. Watson left Mycroft alone in the breakfast room, for Harriette and Mary had already gone to the boarding school to begin their stint as guest drama teachers, and Lestrade had not returned yet from his journey into the village to ensconce himself into a multiple murder investigation. Mycroft was still nervous from the attack the night before, his hand still pressed against the cotton covering the wound between his shoulder and neck, the horror of it still repeating within his mind. He loved his brother with all his heart, but there was a small contingent within his own soul that wanted him to be ousted from Bath and the quiet life that was happy here, to have him safely away from them all and locked in Holloway where he could do no further damage. He felt guilty for such wishes and tried to bury them, but they rose up with fluttered, panicked feelings that he found impossible to completely ignore.
He did as Dr. Watson bid and made himself scarce for the remainder of the day, hiding in his father’s study and laying out the various cases that he would be attending before the summer was out. Several hours had gone by and he did not hear Lestrade’s entrance, and was momentarily struck with dread when hands reached behind him and pulled him into a not so subtle embrace.
Lestrade kissed the top of his head where his black hair was beginning to thin. “He’s here, is he? I saw that contraption in the driveway. Mr. Pinter already has his nephew looking it over.”
“How did you know that the motor car was Dr. Watson’s?”
“Not that hard to figure out, the man is rolling in revenue since his current bestseller. I wouldn’t be surprised if he brings his favourite detective back from the dead. He’s with Sherlock now?”
“Yes, he doesn’t want us to disturb him.”
“He’s packing him up for Holloway.”
“No.” Mycroft caught Lestrade’s instant fury at this, the flash of it gone as quickly as it arrived, swallowed down with clear effort. “Not my decision, I assure you. He’s giving Sherlock a full assessment for a couple of weeks here first, and will not be leaving him unattended for a second, he has given us his word.” He gave Lestrade’s continued unease an imploring gesture. “You know he’s good for it. He is excellent with Sherlock.”
“I suppose.” Lestrade ran a hand through his short salt and pepper hair before snatching up a chair and seating himself noisily beside Mycroft, the sheafs of court papers now strewn out before them both. “I must say, I’m having a very hard time understanding the people of that village. There’s a conspiracy afoot, and I swear that every single person, from the barman to the milkmaid has some involvement in it and I can’t crack their ranks.”
Mycroft was not concerned by this and began gathering up his papers back into their organized files. “This is not London, Gregory, people in this part of our world do not sell each other out for six pence like they do on those desperate streets. The ties here run very deep and any outsider is viewed upon with strict suspicion. You could move into this estate and live in it for the rest of your days and you will always be ‘That fellow from London’, even if you should live until a hundred.”
“I don’t know.” Lestrade sank back in his chair, his legs crossed, his knee casually touching Mycroft’s. “There’s something deeper going on here. It bothers me that I can’t determine it.”
“Tell me about the latest murder.” Mycroft relaxed back into his chair as well, the air between them easy and comfortable, as unaware in their closeness as they had been on Baker Street. The shadow of leaves cascaded over the books and the massive desk in the study, the exotic trees in the adjoined arboretum leaving poetic lines in their wake.
“It’s fairly straightforward.” Lestrade shrugged, his fingers pressed against his chin in thought. “Though not an abusive rogue, as Mr. Hoot was, this one is an outright philanderer, and well known by many of the women in the village for being ruthless in his pursuit of young women, despite being a married man with two small children.”
“What is the name of his widow?”
“Mrs. Helen Blackburn.”
“George Blackburn was murdered!” Mycroft couldn’t stifle his glee at this. “Oh, that old scoundrel! It should have happened ages ago, the man has no morals whatsoever!”
Lestrade was put out by Mycroft’s strange attitude. “Was he really that bad? He seemed to be providing for his family well enough. They have a pleasant little cottage within the heart of the village, four bedrooms, a good sized acreage out back of it and everyone is well fed, unlike the Hoot business.”
Mycroft chuckled. “He has money because he has stolen most of it from unsuspecting investors. He’s been up for numerous charges of fraud and is barred from accounting work as he managed to skim a good padding onto his yearly salary at the village bank by stealing the sums of goat sales by local farmers. The sales of goats was low enough to be undetected, the farmers barely saw the loss, and he managed to add on at least a hundred pounds to his annual earnings as he skimmed these particular sales from hundreds of farmers throughout the surrounding hamlets, a tidy sum to be sure. In his youth he was fond of horse scamming, where he would have a man offer to purchase a horse for ten pounds, then he would show up and offer twenty-five, and the happy farmer would give the original man his ten pounds back, plus ten dollars for his trouble. The latter, of course, would never show, and the farmer was stuck with his horse and was twenty pounds lighter. That particular scam earned Mr. Blackburn a shot in his left leg, which never fully recovered. He walked with a slight limp for the rest of his life.”
“I imagine he got off lucky.” Lestrade struck a casual pose, his hands clasped behind his head, his knee still touching Mycroft’s. “That must have been some time ago since he managed to get employment at a local grocer’s doing his bookkeeping, an odd profession for a man these days, they usually get young women to do that sort of thing. He had a real eye for the young ladies, however, as the local grocer told me, he had a habit of chasing off his new hires by being ‘too forceful’ and you can use your imagination as to what that means.
As for the crime scene, it was fairly standard. Boring, even. I managed to get there just before they carted the body off to the morgue, or I should say, chapel basement--they take a long time to get things done around here, I’ve noticed. The paper ink was dry and the man was still on the floor in his drawing room, splayed before a cold fireplace with a small halo of blood beneath him, a near perfect circle.”
“No sign of struggle?”
“None at all. Just like Mr. Hoot. Drugs, obviously, are involved in the matter, a slow acting one where the victim has time to ingest it, possibly in a pint, and is then dragged at some point on his journey home and murdered in its epicentre. The difference here is that Mrs. Blackburn was home during the murder but didn’t hear a thing. She is genuinely distressed and not relieved as Mrs. Hoot was, and I suspect she’s worried her now late husband’s financial dealings are going to be quite the mess and not as profitable as he was suggesting. He was a habitual liar and con man, after all.” Lestrade pursed his lips, his hands still clasped behind his head as he leaned back on his chair. “A sharp stab through the heart with a poker, just like Mr. Hoot. It got the job done quickly, minimal mess. Our murderer has a very thoughtful way of doing things, he likes his deeds to be tidy. We are looking for a precise person, one who can measure out their murderous steps with all the skills of a chemist.
What gets my craw are the women of this village. The murder scene, dull as it was, left little for my deductive prowess, and you know well my eye for the tiniest of details. The murderer left none. So, as has become my habit, I left the crime scene after giving the local constables my observations of it, and headed to that lovely new bakery in town.”
“We seem to be giving them considerable business,” Mycroft added. “Even Mrs. Healey is now outsourcing to them, I saw Betsy carrying a box into the kitchen this morning and Dr. Watson stuffed his full belly with a butter tart the size of his massive hand.”
“I suspect the proprietor has been trained in France, there’s plenty of those more delicate pastries in the window--little napoleons and chocolate dipped eclairs with that rich cream filling and enough petites fors to fill a warehouse let alone that little shop. The owner is a pleasant enough young man, very clean cut and professional, and clearly a bit of a hit with the ladies of the village, young, old, single, married--They all love gathering in that little bakery and remarking on how dreadful the murder was, and how handsy Mr. Blackburn was, the dreadful scoundrel, and how hopeful they were that Mrs. Blackburn would be all right, as would her dear little children and perhaps they should make a box up and send them all some sweets? Odd people. A man is lying cold on a floor with an unlit fireplace beside him, as funereal as one could get, and they talk of sending pastries!”
“Yes,” Mycfroft replied, and he leaned closer to Lestrade, a small mischievous frown on his forehead. “But do tell me--Are these pastries worth a walk into town? I’m thinking of taking a long constitutional tomorrow and I may journey there myself to see what the hub is about. The place has already taken over your palate, you can’t seem to stay away from his scones. Besides, I should check it out for Donald’s sake. He has been wanting to expand some aspects of his restaurant so that it can be further separated from the Diogenes Club it is attached to and open it more to the public as a coffee house. He would make a lot more profit that way rather than catering to lawyers, their scuzzy clientele and drunken judges entertaining prostitutes, which seems to be the bulk of his customers at present. He’s been wanting to branch off into cakes and I daresay he’s talented enough of a chef.”
“That cold fireplace,” Lestrade muttered to himself. “There’s something in that, but damned if I can see it yet.”
“This isn’t like you, Gregory, you are always the man with all the answers. This must be a particularly clever criminal.”
“I’m not sure,” Lestrade honestly replied. “It could be they are merely meticulous. My whole career revolves around the discovery of the most miniscule of mistakes. This particular one is a perfectionist.”
The front door was met with a flustered Betsy who rushed to it as though she’d been running a marathon only moments before and was now forced to move the finish line. She curtseyed and near stumbled as she opened the door and let both Harriette and Mary into the front foyer, the bustle of skirts and happy female chatter echoing loudly throughout the rooms. Betsy took their umbrellas and their packages from shopping, the layers near dwarfing her as she stumbled towards the recesses of the estate where the rest of the servants were, in the basement kitchen. Mycroft could hear low voices rising up from it, and he dismissed them as orders from Mrs. Healey on getting dinner ready.
“I’m absolutely famished!” Mary exclaimed. “I could eat a hundred pies! Those girls have enough energy to outrun a greyhound out of the box! I really hope dinner won’t be too late tonight, I fear I’ll faint without a good meal!”
“It truly was invigorating,” Harriette agreed. Both women marched into the study with wide smiles and fresh, rosy cheeks, heedless of the rather untoward way they had secured employment at Ingrid’s boarding school. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. What a glorious day, full of sunshine and hope! There is a fascinating motor car in the driveway, I take it we have a further guest?” Then, her soft, bright features softening into a more motherly look that could melt the hardest of men, “Are you well, Mycroft? Has Sherlock been seen to?”
“Dr. Watson has arrived,” Mycroft assured her, and the tension in her face instantly eased. “He is keeping Sherlock separated from us for a while and will not be joining us for dinner.”
“Such a shame!” Harriette’s worried expression hadn’t fully eased, and Mary took her by the arm, guiding her upstairs so they could get ready for the evening and perhaps to score a small snack on their journey, as Mary had a good rapport with the servant girl Betsy, who, Mycroft noticed, was the only face he had seen the last two days. He couldn’t blame the other servants for being in hiding, for the night before had been very near tragic and the threat of spilled blood was enough to keep anyone hidden. Holmes estate had enough cubbies to secret oneself into, the servants were being exemplary in their invisibility.
Save for poor Betsy, who arrived at the front door too late to further attend to Harriette and Mary after dropping their shopping into their rooms, and literally did a frantic circle before running to the back of the house, to the kitchen where Mrs. Healey needed her.
Mycroft stole a few steps up the stairs to follow Harriette and Mary, who now paused, their skirts swaying softly against the marble steps. He leaned heavily on his cane as he looked up at their expectant faces. “I have an apology to make. My behaviour this morning was deplorable, I am so sorry. Of course nothing that happened is your fault and it is not your influence that is affecting Sherlock so much, it is his own family history and there is little to be done about that. Please, do not censor yourselves because of my unfair outburst, I am fascinated by every adventure you had in America, including the metaphysical aspects which have captured your mutual passions.” He gestured to the breakfast room, which was fast becoming the primary gathering spot for the entire household. “Please join Gregory and I for tea. I very much want to hear about your new employment opportunity. Did you see more of that Russian mathematics teacher?”
Harriette actually paled at this. “Yes,” she replied, breathless and giving Mary a nervous look. Mary was wide eyed and frightened at the memory. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in my life. It was quite disturbing.”
“Curiouser and curiouser!” Mycroft was cheerful against their fear. He descended the steps with careful effort, his cane punctuating the way as he took careful steps. “We shall hear all about it shortly!”
His good mood was ruined by the sound of happy voices in the further recesses of the estate and he witnessed both Ingrid and Jack, their cheeks flushed and gay as they approached the front of the house up from the kitchen, their heads bowed close to one another in a conspiracy of intimate conversation that set off every warning bell in his being. He caught Jack’s eye and the lad was instantly reserved at the confrontation of his adopted father, the curious onlooking of Lestrade behind him a further barrier to--what was it? Infatuation? Hormones? Surely not love, surely not with Ingrid!
“Mrs. Healey needs to have a word,” Jack said to Mycroft, his posture suddenly stiff and formal. Mycroft paled, wondering if Betsy had been cruel enough to inform her matron of what she had witnessed and he swallowed, hoping to keep the lump that was his heart back in its proper place within his chest. They had been so careful up until now, to lose Betsy as a result and to have to have *that* conversation with Mrs. Healey, when they had been so discreet, so very secretive and now to have the judgement weigh heavy on him and all the ramifications of it. He felt faint. He wanted to run back to London on the first train and back to their comfortable little life and its poisoned air and streets too busy to take notice of the dead let alone two gentlemen who enjoyed one another’s company perhaps a little too much.
“Her servants keep quitting,” Jack further explained. “They are getting work at the new textile factory in Bath and where they say the wages are good and the hours even better. It’s impossible to find servants, she said. It’s only her and Mr. Healey, Mr. Pinter and Betsy left now, and they can’t keep it all up.”
“Oh,” Mycroft tried to keep his surprise out of his voice. “I suppose this has put Mrs. Healey in quite a spot, especially with so many unexpected guests in the house.” He shrugged. “I imagine Mrs. Hoot may be in need of employment?”
“Mrs. Healey is worried about the amount of children she has to care for and that she can’t be leaving her baby behind.”
“I’m sure we can arrange something, the poor woman is in desperate need of employment and we are in desperate need of another servant lest Mrs. Healey commit arson against that textile factory in retaliation. Ensure the prospective Mrs. Hoot will receive a comparable wage, as the work here will be quite steady for at least the next few years. The world we live in is far different than the one I remember, Jack, and perhaps for the better. People of all walks of life have their own agency now, there are no indentured servants any more. It is not so terrible a thing to be inconvenienced by freedom.”
Chapter 7: Men Of Letters
Opting for breakfast in bed was a special treat that Mycroft only afforded himself on the rarest of occasions, and while there was nothing special about this morning he awoke tired and and unwilling to work, his limbs lazy as the cold morning air hit him through the open window and sunlight petered in with a gentle caress against the thin cotton curtains. Just beyond the open window he could see the lush green of the rolling, mossy hills of the Holmes estate, and the corner of the arboretum, a tropical tree pushing against the tall top of the thin glass cage it had been planted and cared for in. There was no hint of the chaos that had happened only three nights ago, nor of the threat of murder within the village, nor the encroaching servant crisis that threatened to topple the management of Holmes manor completely. Mrs. Hoot had declined their offer of a servant’s position, despite the good wages, as she was moving out of her shack and into a much better home further north, where her cousin still had a farm and a four bedroom cottage built on the property that she and her six children could easily move into. Besides, the insurance money had already arrived, and since her late husband had been murdered they had been paid handsomely and she was in no need of charity. Mr. Hoot had proved himself to be far more useful in death.
A stack of letters were placed beside his teacup and he sighed over them as he opened them with his letter opener one by one and stacked them in order of importance. There were several from fellow judges, no doubt full of complaints about their new posts, at least from the older set, while the young judges (who were far better educated in law) were excited over the progress being made. Though the old guard had significantly improved since the distant age of Sir George Jeffreys and his Bloody Assizes, there still smacked that sense of self importance and ignorance that had little place in the halls of law. Mycroft was not so influential to receive correspondence from the Viscount Alverstone, but he was interested in the Alaska border problem which was becoming an increasing concern for Canada. He was hoping some of his fellow peers would mention it and thus give a better understanding of the conflict.
The door adjoining to Lestrade’s bedroom slid open and Lestrade bounded in wearing only his housecoat and a pair of wool slippers, ending with a flop beside Mycroft on the bed and near spilling his tea. He stole one of Mycroft’s cucumber sandwiches and propped himself up on the pillow beside him as he spilled crumbs into the bedding. “I suspect a long, humdrum of a day ahead, Mycroft, and I’m convinced the criminal element is conspiring to keep me bloody bored out of my tree. What say you to putting down these blasted letters and coming with me into the village to see what mischief we can drum up? Or better yet, another trip, this time in the day, to that boarding school. I’m curious about this Russian mathematics teacher that Harriette and Mary are now so creepily obsessed with.”
Mycroft raised a brow and opened another letter. It was a brief description of the continued destruction of the Old Bailey and the subsequent curiosity that was the Roman wall that was revealed to be a support structure. It predated England itself and was causing quite a stir among historians, and perhaps the criminals were enthralled as well for there were fewer incidents of murder and fraud than usual this time of year, though of course infanticide was up. The sudden appearance of the wall had given London a strange sense of unity as all walks of life journeyed to look at it and marvel at how a couple of thousand years had transpired and still this stood, way before anything they could judge as their great city’s history. A deep root had been placed within the collective imagination and it was interesting to Mycroft to see how it developed.
“I thought you had two murders to investigate?”
Lestrade pished at this and flopped into an even lazier position on the mattress. “Stuff and bother. Nothing at all to see until there’s a third victim, which will probably happen soon. For now, all I can do is wait it out and it’s so *boring*!”
“That’s quite an alarming admission, Gregory.” Mycroft pushed his letters aside as he sipped his tea. “One would think you would be working hard to prevent such an action.”
“The murderer is one who likes to take out bad husbands.” Lestrade shrugged. “The trouble is, no one will tell you who the bad husbands are, at least not until they are good and dead first. Believe me, I’ve been asking around. Secrets stay that way around here.”
“Still, it seems rather macabre to expect a third bloodshed, especially when you should be making steps to prevent it.”
“I can’t stop the inevitable. And you know I have no clues to speak of yet, save for cold fireplaces and I’m not at all sure how they factor in.” Lestrade let out a contented sigh and clasped his hands behind his head, softened by the pillow beneath him. He was most handsome in the mornings, Mycroft thought, when sleep hadn’t fully left him and his enervated energy was at a lull, his hair unkempt in salt and pepper spikes, a thin line of grey on his jowls that hadn’t yet been shaved, the pronounced muscles of his chest and abdomen in full relief and pale next to his tanned arms, his strong legs poking out from beneath the brocade silk dressing gown, ending in oddly elegant feet with long, well manicured toes.
Mycroft placed his palm over his stack of letters. “I have considerable correspondence to get through and I am interested in none of it. I believe an excursion to the boarding school is an excellent idea and it will satisfy your latent curiosity about Ingrid’s Russian mathematics teacher, not to mention an overview of Harriette and Mary’s newest incarnation of their career.” He paused a moment after this, an unspoken worry malingering within him. “We can also check on Ingrid’s progress with her peers, or lack of it.”
“Or whether or not Jack has been aiding her in skipping classes to hang out in the local woods.” Lestrade gave Mycroft’s shocked expression a low laugh. “I was sixteen once, even if you never were. He’s got an infatuation with the girl, though I wouldn’t worry too much, I doubt they are on equal footing. Ingrid is miles ahead of him in terms of maturity and she is far too independent to be of any lasting infatuation.”
“This talk of Ingrid brings me to our latest problem.” Mycroft pulled a small, thin letter out from the bottom of his pile of correspondence. “A letter from her mother, postmarked from Scotland. You know how abrupt and cold the woman is, Emigene has all the warmth and feeling of a sea lichen. She never writes to Ingrid unless she is giving bad news. I have intercepted the letter for now and will attempt to steam it open in the usual way to get a head start on her apathy before we have to give it to Ingrid. We are in for a rather unfortunate and uncomfortable evening supper, I should think.”
Lestrade’s happy mood darkened, but only slightly. “I refuse to let that dizzy cow affect the beginning of what’s set to be a fabulous day! Put it aside and out of your heart and head.” He stole a piece of dry toast and took a sip of Mycroft’s now lukewarm tea. “I’m more concerned about Jack’s lack of ambition, or more about where that ambition is heading. I think you should get yourself into the twentieth century and use that telephone in the front foyer to call Mrs. Hudson.”
“To find out what our Jack’s really been studying,” Lestrade said, ominous. “I believe she’ll be the only one happy about it.”
The Bathroyal Society Of Ladies Boarding Academy did not retain the same ominous presence on the horizon during the day as it did at dusk and was an oddly cheerful place in full sunlight. A sea of young women in navy blue pinafores giggled and pranced past them, paying them little mind as they journeyed off to whatever adventures in learning they were expected to engage in. This was a far cry from the boarding schools of Mycroft’s youth, which were humorless, brick prisons dedicated to learning and nothing else, no sense of male development or esteem, just the cold facets of knowledge hammered into the students without mercy. He had both loved and hated school. Loved it for the freedom it afforded him away from the confines of the Holmes estate and especially the pronounced estrangement of his father, who only ever communicated to either himself or Sherlock if he was in a drunken rage, which happened more often than Mycroft cared to remember. By the time their mother died they had both figured out the best hiding places on the estate, with the loose panel in the library, situated beside the fireplace, affording them just enough room to keep their skinny forms hidden behind it and between the wall and the foundation.
Lestrade, of course, being a commoner and a man of very modest upbringing, did not have the same education or issues surrounding it that Mycroft had. His situation had been lifted up by his own parents who were working class, his mother a servant at a large house not far from the richest area in London, while his father was a fisherman. He didn’t indulge in it often, but he spoke fluent French thanks to his father, who had been born and raised in Nice. As for much of his childhood, Lestrade kept his shrouded in mystery, not due to abuse or abandonments so much as a mild respect that Mycroft could simply not understand it. He had gained an education quite possibly on his own, and by Jack’s age was already planning his escape from the limitations placed upon him and was still a lad when he made his way to Japan. He talked of knowing Shinsengumi, but that was unlikely, even if he did have a proper samurai sword to supposedly prove it. They were a tad too old for Lestrade’s time, though perhaps it was a protege that caught Lestrade’s eye, and who decided a strong, sleek Englishman who was youthful and yet sporting that grey fox shimmer of hair had made him sheath his sword and risk a greeting. A sword Lestrade still owned and which followed him every year to the Holmes estate, displayed proudly on the mantle in his adjoined bedroom. It had the exact same place of esteem in their home on Baker street, and Mycroft would be lying to himself if it hadn’t sparked a certain curious jealousy within him about that rich, secretive, past life on a vastly foreign shore.
Such romanticism is infectious, and Mycroft shook the off the feeling it gave him, blaming the young women who teemed around them, their giggling passion tightly wound into their hopes for the future. Though Headmistress Yearwood claimed to bow to parental pressure to keep the girls ‘marriageable’ it was highly unlikely she took that effort all that seriously, especially not when Mycroft spied more than one copy of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution cloth bound and in more than one hand.
As it was early afternoon, finding Harriette and Mary’s ‘classroom’ was of little difficulty. Taking advantage of the beautiful gardens on the property, they opted for an outdoor setting for their drama class, rows of eager young women hanging on their every word though few were taking notes. Harriette was in a soft beige muslin dress with ornate lacework at the bodice that was buttoned up to her chin while Mary, being the bolder one, was layered in what looked like armor only upon closer inspection it was clear it was leather painted silver. She held a large tin shield and a wooden sword and appeared to be leading a great army. The painting of Joan of Arc in Headmistress Yearwood’s office suddenly came to mind.
“Rather consistent in their heroines,” Lestrade observed. He gave Harriette’s wide grin an answering wave and stood to one side as she skirted around the enraptured students and approached them. Her skin glowed with a freshness of spirit that Mycroft had rarely seen and he realized that it was due to being in her true element, teaching children and absorbing their positive energy that reflected back in a physical manifestation of her happy soul. Just as there are women who are born, it seems, to serve the cloister of a nunnery as called by God, there are those who have an equal, if not more fervent, call to care for the minds of growing children. It takes a special brand of patience, which Harriette Turner has always had in abundance.
Sunlight glanced off her hair, which was tainted auburn in its light, ringlets hanging down the back of her neck in the usual Gibson fashion. He wondered how many hairpins it took to keep that soft piled ‘do in place, and it made her look like an exotic, healthy American against her prim counterparts who glared out of the boarding school’s windows, unhappy with the apparent distraction they caused. “Mary had the girls draft up a small play about Joan of Arc during her campaign, as opposed to when she was burned at the stake since that was the footnote of her influence on French politics. She’s right, there’s too much attention paid to her tragedy rather than what the saint achieved. Are you here to discuss Ingrid’s progress with the Headmistress again?”
“No,” Lestrade quickly replied. “We’re here to meet the Russian mathematics teacher.”
Mycroft was taken aback at the frankness of Gregory’s gawking curiosity. “Ulterior motives,” he grumbled under his breath.
“As I said to Mycroft, I’m in a bit of bother at present because I can’t move further in the murder case because I need another one to happen first.” He said this with such bland candor that Harriette looked upon him with alarm, her hand at her open mouth in shock. “It’s not that these men didn’t deserve it,” he further explained. “The facts are they are burdens on their families and the murders have all been beneficial in one way or another for their continued survival. The next one to go will be just as much of a rotten cad as the other two, but of course getting people in this town to tell you who the scoundrels and wife beaters are is like asking them to show their privates. Oh look, Mary has broken her sword and her Joan is now in hand to hand combat against the English devils! Bravo, Joan!”
If he noted that Harriette was still disturbed by his observation he didn’t show it, and when Mary finished her tiny play by kicking and biting at the soldiers who dragged Joan of Arc off to prison his claps and whistles at her performance could be heard above all others.
But Harriette was still hung on Lestrade’s original topic. “Surely the death of any person is a dreadful thing?”
Lestrade grinned and waved at a triumphant Mary, who was now going over the finer points of method acting, such as when to exaggerate and when to hold back. She had a waiflike student swoon beneath the bright sun as the shadow of her tall, stoutly built classmate stood over her with exaggerated menace, hands outstretched into claws. “Someone has been studying Berndhart.”
“We met her,” Harriette replied, suddenly tight lipped. “She was a rude, snobbish tart. The latter one can forgive, but to put on airs?” Harriette shook her head. “I’m sure she saw Mary’s raw talent as a threat. We’ve learned that type of actor or actress often does.”
“No one likes to be upstaged,” Lestrade agreed. “As for your question, I will say that yes, there are many men in this world who downright deserve to be put down. We have the gallows for that very reason. But it’s bad form to go off doing it on one’s own when there’s a perfectly good magistrate living in town who can be the proper judge of it all. Not to mention a rather seasoned inspector of Scotland Yard who can determine if indeed a crime has been committed. The problem is, the law hasn’t caught up yet with these rascals and even our esteemed help has been deemed of no use. Vigilantism is a symptom of social disease, I’d say. And there’s some kind of weird marital pox in this village, no question there!”
A gentle rustle of white curtains in an upper window caught Lestrade’s attention, and he bid Mycroft to view it as well. A tall, thin woman wearing all black appeared in its frame, her equally dark hair tied in a fierce bun at the back of her head pulling her features taut, giving her a permanent surprised expression. It wasn’t difficult to surmise that this was the now infamous Miss Stanya Vanislov, the odd creature who occasionally became two ghosts of herself. In truth, from what Mycroft could see of her, she was a reed of a woman, as fragile as a dried branch and easily prone to snapping should the least bit of pressure be put upon her. He held back as Lestrade began his eager march into the school to meet her.
“I take it he is off to harass her,” Harriette sighed, watching him. “If you ask me, that poor woman has more metaphysical burdens than legal ones and this is one mystery he won’t like the outcome of.”
“Indeed, his stubborn attitude has been difficult of late. Boredom does not suit him, and he does everything he can to alleviate it, including bothering sickly spinsters.”
“I can only imagine his doggedness if he didn’t have murder to distract him.”
“My dear Miss Turner, he is a menace on the best of days. I fear my macabre sigh of relief at the news of the first murder was audible and doubly so for the second.”
She watched him as he leaned on his cane, the visible wince it gave him difficult to hide from her. The wound in his shoulder was healing as promised, but the stiffness in his arm radiated across the back of his shoulders and up the length of his neck and no amount of self massage could cure it. Conscious of her flash of concern, he put his cane in his right hand and tried not to lean too heavily on it.
“Is there any word on Sherlock?”
“I have heard nothing from Dr. Watson for nearly two days now. He has not come down for dinner, as you know, and that is one event he very rarely misses.”
“This sounds serious,” Harriette agreed.
“Mrs. Healey has told me that he has upped Sherlock’s laudanum prescription but the night terrors are still present.” Mycroft sighed. “I have fears, Harriette, that the white elephant that is the Holmes estate is going to be a burden that I will no longer be able to justify. The place is a debt maker, and there are days, I fear, that I wish it could burn to the ground and the decision be taken from me. And then, alas, I think of my mother and how she loved it when her delusions didn’t get the better of her, and I’m torn again.”
“It was never a happy home,” Harriette reminded him. “You told me so yourself.”
“Yes. But it is a happy habit.”
Harriette gave his hand a squeeze and a warm, matronly smile.
“He’s gone halfway up the front entrance stairs and has already left several young female students pale and wide eyed in his wake.”
“Details of murder are his favourite topic.”
“Oddly enough, it’s the favourite of most young women too.”
Mycroft gave Harriette a flustered promise that they would continue their conversation over dinner that night, and then hurried after Lestrade who was clearly on what was, for him, a very cheerful mission. “Really, Gregory,” Mycroft admonished him. “Why should we meet this poor woman at all? Surely the rumours of her ghostly figures are just that, and to be harassing her over it as you are set to do will do more harm than good. We know nothing about the poor woman.”
“Indeed, which has to be corrected.”
But his protests were in vain as Lestrade ran into the main entrance of the school, his mood high as he burst into the classroom on the third floor, the tiny, reedy woman made of grey and black sticks jolting near out of her skin at his sudden intrusion. She held a skeletal hand at her heart and Mycroft noted her pale face was accentuated by the thick, dark circles that surrounded her huge, brown eyes. It was no wonder the girls of her class thought she was a spectre, for she was certainly doing a good job of being a corporeal one at present.
Mycroft, of course, had to catch his breath with effort, for he had lagged well behind Lestrade and only caught the last glimpse of her shock, his cane tapping his way into her classroom like a warning that came too late.
“Sorry to trouble you,” Lestrade said, giving her his most dazzling, charming smile which he usually reserved for political meetings and the wives of clergy. “But I hear that my associate’s cousin, Ingrid Holmes, is currently one of your students? She has been having some issues with her classmates and life here at the school as of late and though we did have a meeting with Headmistress Yearwood, we felt it prudent to discuss her with those who work directly with her, such yourself.”
Miss Vanislov blinked, the action so deliberate and slow it was as if she was a clockwork automaton and not flesh and blood, her eyes too large to be truly human and not fashioned from plaster and glass. “I don’t think I can help you,” she said, her Russian accent so thick and her voice so low it was difficult to understand her. “Ingrid is actually my best pupil.”
“I don’t doubt that for a second,” Lestrade continued. He sat on top of one of the desks, his arms folded over his chest as he surveyed the room, his inspector’s gaze pulling in all manner of clues and observations. For Mycroft the classroom was more spare than usual, the blackboard a dusty grey, the air thick with particles that made it feel as though one was pushing through cobwebs. There were none of the small details that a teacher would usually place as visual aids for her pupil’s learning, no large posters with common equations, no lists of homework assignments, no textbooks, which was an exceptional omission. Miss Vanislov’s desk looked abandoned, and Mycroft half wondered if there were reams of dust lining the drawers, for the desk looked as though it was never used save for one corner where a clear, rectangular imprint remained within the dust, presumably the sheets of mathematical assignments that were handed out and back to her daily by her students.
“It’s a lovely school, isn’t it?” Gregory remarked, making uncharacteristic small talk which was obviously putting Miss Vanislov ill at ease. “All that sunshine and happiness spilling all over the place, and giggling girls full of smarts and promise. A far cry from what I grew up with in London, I can tell you! No bloody knuckles from the edges of rulers here! I had a teacher, a maths teacher like yourself, actually, who enjoyed using a ruler that had a metal strip on it for ripping paper in clean lines. Made good gashes across the knuckles and backs of hands when he used it, took forever for the wounds to heal.”
Miss Vanislov appeared confused by his story. “I’m sorry, I--I’ve never harmed any of my students and wouldn’t think to.”
“Of course not! You are passionate about mathematics, and are beyond well versed in your subject and really, you don’t care if they learn it or not, for it’s up to them to take advantage of your brilliance and if they don’t want to listen it’s their problem--As well it should be!”
She was not entirely sure she should consider this a compliment and Mycroft sighed in empathy for her. “You must forgive my friend, Miss Vanislov. He is blunt to a fault and has very little by way of genteel social graces, but he is a man who can unravel any mystery.” He sat in one of the small chairs attached to the desk, exaggerating the use of his cane as he went down. Her frightened face softened at his obviously harmless appearance and she inched away from Lestrade to stand closer to Mycroft. “I do know of you, your Honour. You have a reputation even in Russia as a judge who can be trusted to make a good decision and you are not so elevated that you forget the importance of kindness. We know of Dr. Watson’s stories as well, of course. So much fun those mysteries are! Is it true he is writing more? But you are nothing how he describes.” Her voice was soft and barely there, the thick intonations of her accent blurring many of her words, but Mycroft was able to piece them out with pierced concentration. “I am here in England now, but I do not think for long...The Headmistress, she is not fond of me nor my teaching methods.” She hung her head slightly at this, her dark eyes clouded. “Your friend is very correct. I care about mathematics only. I was an expert in my field in Russia and I was to be a professor in the Faculty of Mathematics in Chernivtsi University in Ukraine. But...It was not to be...I am here now.”
“You have my sympathies,” Lestrade blurted. “There’s only so many rolling hills and sheep a brilliant mind can take. Did you know there were two murders in town? I’m starting to suspect they are a symptom rather than an aberration.”
The woman’s shocked expression was alarming, for she looked more skeletal and terrified than ever. Mycroft frowned at Lestrade, silently trying to heed him to have more tact as the poor woman was clearly easily excitable. But Lestrade would not be daunted.
“The bodies were both laid out, as though for a bloody buffet, just perfect on the ground, waiting for me to come along and give them a poke through. Cold fireplaces, both of them, it’s driving me mad, that.”
“Good Lord, Gregory, do mind yourself, can’t you see you are distressing her with this talk?”
Lestrade gave Miss Vanislov’s pitiable, shivering form a calculated once over. “This shouldn’t upset you,” he said to her, and Miss Vanislov’s hand went to her mouth in horror. “You’re well used to murder, I should think.” He shrugged. “But not these ones, of course.”
The woman really was a remarkable shade of white.
“We will trouble you no further, Miss Vanislov,” Mycroft assured her and he near pushed Gregory out of the door of the classroom. “Thank you for your patience.”
But how odd, Mycroft thought as they exited the classroom, how the air around her seemed to shimmer, her wide eyes brimmed with tears that seemed to bodily split into doubles, her hands and feet in a strange, out of focus relief, so much so that it would seem, even as one stared, that she was, in fact, two people slightly imposed upon each other, both as insubstantial and yet solid as the work of a busy silkworm.
Gregory was thrilled. “You saw that, didn’t you?” His breath was hot on Mycroft’s ear and he was heedless of the way Miss Vanislov stared after them in guilty horror. “Ah yes, that’s it! Now that’s a proper mystery! The kind that can never be solved!”
“You made her very upset,” Mycroft admonished him. He turned away from Miss Vanislov’s wide, fixed gaze after them and hastily made his exit down the vast oak stairs that led to the main entrance, Lestrade doing his best to catch up with him, his steps heavy on the oak planks.
“All for the purpose of determining the trigger that begins her oddly supernatural splitting, which I believe my small amount of bullying prodded into being. I have to wonder what terrible news it was that made her separation so complete that students fainted upon seeing her doppleganger wander aimlessly on its own. She is an unhappy woman, Mycroft, this is obvious, but the cause of it is stubbornly held close to her, so close that the very physics of existence are warping because of it. This cannot possibly be a healthy state of being for not only her but anyone exposed to her. Who knows what manner of destruction her state is imposing upon her students. It must be remedied!”
Mycroft shrugged at this. They were already well out of the building, the throng of young women now tucked safely back into classrooms, finishing the day’s assignments before they were set to go to the study hall for their late afternoon research and then to the cafeteria for dinner and then, if it was like his own experience with boarding school, another prolonged study session and homework completion before exhaustion overtook them and they slumped away from the library and back to their rooms and into their beds. Perhaps the older girls with more adventurous leanings would gossip and smoke under the vast oak stairs that led to the basement store rooms and laundry, a fairly typical gathering place for such clandestine activities. He had been young and rebellious on occasion, it was true. Though mostly his suspicions were due to the fact cigarette smoke made him terribly ill and he could smell the French cut of quality tobacco embedded within the lower portion of the stairwell, and nearly overpowering when a rather young maidservant opened the door to the basement and released its pungent aroma.
He wondered if Ingrid went down there, gossiping in the dark amongst damp linen with her other faerie tinted folk and reading passages of romantic love amongst the samurai, sometimes in fluent Japanese. He wouldn’t put it past her.
“I doubt you have the ability to remedy such an occurrence, Gregory.” They were walking off of the school grounds now, and Mycroft was tired, the tip of his cane hitting the ground harder than usual as he leaned on it. He wished he’d gotten Mr. Pinter to come around with his buggy to pick them up, or better yet, Dr. Watson’s motorcar, as it was still a source of fascination for him. He hadn’t been taken out in it once since Watson had arrived, and he was itching to make his own investment.
“I most certainly do not!” Lestrade cheerfully agreed. “Those mysteries can be left to our lovely feminine houseguests for whom such problems are their future bread and butter. As you can see, I have the gift of clairvoyance too, Mycroft, though mine are far less intuitive and built solidly on facts!”
“They have been employed by the school…”Mycroft objected.
“They have a temporary position that is tentative at best and held together by the whim of the Headmistress--though I do believe their courses will be popular and they will find continued success with it, make no mistake. But our lovely sisters are enamoured with the spotlight, and a simple life in a boarding school forming young minds will not be enough for their vast set of life experience and I fear that controversy shall follow them when their more extra-curricular side projects come to light.”
“Talking to spooks. It’s quite the money maker these days.”
August 13, 1903.
As you have been made aware I am currently on an anthropological sabbatical in the Hebrides of Scotland and am making significant progress on a Viking settlement in South Uist and it promises to be one of the largest ever discovered.
This of course means I will not be back to Bath any time soon. Possibly ever. Have a pleasant life and do forge your own path, as I have taught you. My work must take all of my attention and I simply do not have time to manage your more rebellious nature, as your cousin Mycroft Holmes puts it. I only request that you put the intelligence I gave you to good use. I encourage ample travel, as this has helped me in my ambitions and has released me of the oppressive nature of English society. I should hope the same for you…
“The selfish cow!” Lestrade tossed the letter back to Mycroft, the rest of it unread. “You can’t possibly let the girl read this, it’s her mother basically disowning her for some old broken pottery!”
“Do keep your voice down, Gregory,” Mycroft admonished him. “She’s been here all afternoon and I suspect we may be too late in our protection of her from her mother’s heartless discarding. I went to my room after we arrived back and found my letters scattered on my bed and this one had been opened when I am sure we left it sealed when we left. There is only one person interested in what Emigene Holmes has to write about in this house, and I’m afraid Ingrid has learned a very difficult truth about her mother’s complete lack of maternal instinct.”
“She should not be rifling through your letters.”
“She must have heard a servant girl talk about it for she has no other interest in my letters otherwise. You know how she longs for that correspondence, it’s painful to see her try to wrench any sort of motherly attention or affection from that hag.” Mycroft sighed and set the offending letter on the table before him. Deep orange streaks of light descended upon the breakfast room where they enjoyed all repasts, the large windows letting in a vista of pastoral peace and dusk tranquility. It was a sharp contrast to the deep sadness he knew had infected the Holmes estate, where madness and apathy constantly got too strong a foothold upon its inhabitants.
“Don’t admonish the poor girl,” Mycroft added. “I’m sure the contents of that letter are punishment enough for her impatient snooping. No one has seen her since two o’clock this afternoon after she arrived back from school, and Jack has been conspicuously absent as well. I imagine he is the one currently consoling her.”
“Jack is only sixteen…”
“And still of excellent moral character,” Mycroft reminded him.
Lestrade stood in front of the long windows, his profile one of immense dignity and strength as the orange sky dipped into a deeper shade of red, then purple, as darkness began to overtake the hills. Dinner had been a simple ploughman’s lunch which their tired friends Harriette and Mary greatly appreciated as a heavy meal would weigh on them after such a busy, hot afternoon. Both his own and Lestrade’s appetite had been quashed by excited conversation about splitting psyches becoming physical, and if there was a sneaky kiss or two given when Mycroft retired upstairs to his room to put on his smoking jacket it was still a strict secret. If a door was closed as a third and fourth more insistent kiss met him, along with a rather, shall we say, enthusiastic shedding of clothes, that is also a very private secret. Muffled cries of pleasure, fleeting, quick and wholly desperate made him near weep in longing for more and he found himself impatient for the summer to end and they were back in London, in its filth and silty air and banal, open disregard for what happened behind the bedroom doors of gentlemen.
“All this talk of letters and I’m reminded I have not returned replies to any of them. I suppose it shall be a late night for me to catch up properly with them. There’s still no word on my upcoming Assizes sessions in Wales due the construction of the courthouse in London, though I do think they will be earlier rather than later and I have cleared October for the very purpose. It has been a difficult year for many, as the stack of accused keeps getting bigger, and all the usual criminal diseases of poverty--murder during robberies, abortions, infanticide, patricide, matricide--are set in triplicate and more on my plate. I could be doing sessions well into Christmas if this keeps up.”
But Lestrade remained silent, lost in his own ruminations on murder as he stood in front of the breakfast room windows, the darkening sky placing him in odd shadows that made him a brooding figure who needed his privacy to properly think. Mycroft silently left him to it and walked with some effort from the large room, leaning on his cane using the wrong arm as his shoulder pained him this evening. He had still not seen Sherlock and though his shoulder smarted and the act of murder had almost happened beneath this very roof, he still wished to talk to his ill brother and be sure that he was no longer a threat to either himself nor anyone else.
His office door was open and he could hear Dr. Watson’s deep voice, more cheerful than pensive, echo through the grand entranceway and up the stairs to their bedrooms. “We cannot be slaves to the mistakes of our parents and our ancestors are just as fallible and open to scrutiny. I am sorry you are suffering her folly, my dear, but it is just that, and perhaps the one positive thing you can take from this is that you have no wish to live your life in the same way. A bad example can sometimes be helpful in exorcising those habits which have poisoned generations, especially if you are open to changing them.”
“I would never do this to my child, even as a man, and I can’t understand any parent being so cold. Nothing but love and support has been offered to me, even with my orphan beginnings, so I suppose that has made me very lucky. I am so sorry, Ingrid, that this is what you have been given.”
He could see the barest outline of Jack in the office, seated on a chair beside Ingrid, his arm strong and protective around her shoulders as she had her back to the open door.
“You are so much better than her, Dr. Watson is right. She was only there to make your mold, but you are too unique to be trapped in it.”
Ingrid sniffed, loudly, and the rarity of her tears struck Mycroft to his core. He hesitated at the landing of the stairs, and considered entering his office, only to be stopped by Sherlock’s interjection.
“You have no idea how lucky you are! The woman has given you ample warning! Take heed of it, girl!”
Ingrid choked on her tears, Sherlock’s interjection unwelcome. “Lucky...You really are a madman. There’s nothing lucky about having a shitty mother who won’t even talk to me again because she’s too busy digging up dead people and I’m inconvenient. I’m not stupid. I know that’s exactly how she thinks. I’m not lucky to have a stupid mother like her.”
“You are lucky because she has reminded you, very clearly: We are not our parents.”
“I’ll never be like her,” Ingrid spat.
“It’s not enough just to say it, you must live it.”
“I won’t have a problem with that!”
“Don’t be so sure.” Sherlock noisily scraped an oak office chair beside her, the wooden wheels leaving a groove in the floor. “You know that things were very bad for Mycroft and I in this house, and it’s full of its ghosts. Mycroft has scars on his back from the way our father beat him. He beat our mother, too, often until she was unconscious and sometimes I wondered if he had killed her. So many evil little devils scurry about this place and I see them, and though Dr. Watson has told me they are not real, that they are only in my mind, I can’t help but wonder if they are the remnants of our father doing all the harm they can, infecting this place like lice. I hurt my brother, Ingrid, the one person who has been kind to me my entire, crazy life, and all because I let my father’s little devils in. How lucky you are to have this letter, a warning, in writing, to remind you: Don’t do the same thing.”
The oddly astute observation hit Mycroft hard, and he took two steps down the landing only to stop himself once more and return to his ascent. It was enough his brother understood the danger he had placed his family in, that he had to listen to Dr. Watson and recognize his delusions as what they were--poisoned fears leftover in his mind.
His shoulder throbbed, and he put his weight on the wrong leg to compensate for his balance, his cane tapping with gentle precision up the stairs. He needed to get to his correspondence for there was one letter he most certainly had to reply to that was not on his pile. Though he was reluctant to hear back, he longed for Irene Adler’s insight.
Was this his own delusion, a part of him nagged? Was she another devil leftover within his mind due to his past, one he was allowing to grow and give influence when it shouldn’t? It bothered him that he couldn’t answer himself, that she had become more of a familiar to his reason, her insight a remorseless window into the darkness that permeated the world. He wasn’t sure what this said about the state of his own soul.
He ascended the stairs into the dark shadows of the Holmes estate, allowing them to consume him.